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Thomas BA\Q/'her :g^ 



Literary Sketches 



Hf S/ SALT. 





SWAN SONNENSCHEIN, LOWREY & CO., 

PATERNOSTER SQUARE. 

188& 



.Ji 



S. Cotoan d: Co., Qensral Printerif Perth, 







CONTENTS. 

X [The essays are reprinted, by permission, from the Magazines in which they were 

^ first published, with a few slight additions and modifications.] 

• PAG» 

flC I. Two Kinds of Genius . . Progress, Nov.» 1883, i 



2. Shelley as a Teacher . . Temple Bar y Nov., 1882. 14 

3. The Tennyson I an Philosophy • To-day ^ Feb., 1884. 39 

4. The Works of James Thomson (''RV.") The Gentle- 

ffian^s Magazine, June, 1886. 59 

5. On Certain Lyric Poets, and Their Critics. 

7>/7i//<f-5flr, Jan., 1883. 93 

6. Edgar Poe*s Writings . , Progress ^ July, 1887. 104 

7. Henry D. Thoreau . . Temple Bar, Nov., 1886. 124 

8. William Godwin • . . To-day, July, 1887. 167 

9. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Romances Progress, Sept., 1887. 189 

10. Some Thoughts on De Quincey . Time, Oct., 1887. 208 



Two Kinds of Genius. 



To attempt to subject a quality so mysterious 
and variable as genius to any systematic 
arrangement or precise definition would be, at 
the best, a hopeless and foolish endeavour. But, 
apart from any such arbitrary classification, there 
are two main divisions of genius, apparent to 
everyone who considers the question thought- 
fully, which have always played an important 
part in the history of the world. On the one 
hand, there are the warm-hearted, sympathetic 
lovers of mankind, who are inspired with a 
generous impatience of the injustice and misery 
with which the world is filled, and devote them- 
selves to helping their fellow-creatures by some 
special teaching and example. On the other 
hand, there are the calm, philosophical minds, 
which take a widely intellectual and passionless 



Two Kinds of Genius. 



of things, by denouncing with their utmost force 
and passion the cause of the injustice. They 
dwell rather on the enormity of the evil than on 
its intermixture with good ; they are moralists 
rather than artists ; philanthropists rather than 
philosophers ; originators or advocates of one 
special system rather than observers of man- 
kind as a whole ; possessed of intense enthu- 
siasm for one great idea, but perhaps for that 
very reason unable to take a widely tolerant 
and appreciative view of all ranks and classes 
of society. This burning zeal for mankind, 
this eager desire to right the wrong, has ap- 
peared at all times and in many varieties of 
character. It was in this spirit that the ancient 
Jewish prophets uttered their fierce denuncia- 
tions of present evil and promises of future 
good. It was not part of their mission to 
study nicely the characters of the offenders to 
whom they were sent ; they were not com- 
manded to weigh and ponder and suspend 
judgment, but to denounce, startle, and over- 
awe. So also with the founders of religious 
sects and communities : in their earnest pro- 
clamations of a new belief, it is no wonder if 
they have sometimes done scant justice to 
former institutions. The early propagators of 
the Christian religion, whose whole attention 
was absorbed in the new and glorious truths 
which they were proclaiming to the world, had 



Two Kinds of Genius. 



little inclination to study philosophically the 
old pagan creeds. When Mahomet, in his 
turn, arose to sweep away the errors and 
ambiguities that had crept into the Eastern 
Church, and to establish a simpler faith, he felt 
it no part of his duty to discriminate minutely 
between the various sects of his opponents. 
Again, when in later ages Luther rebelled 
against the monstrous and overgrown tyranny 
of Rome, he could not calmly set himself to 
discover what truths, or fragments of truths, 
might yet lurk in the very superstitions which 
he cast off ; had he striven only to form an 
unbiassed judgment of the papal authority, the 
world might have been the richer by a great 
critical or theological work, but it would have 
missed the Reformation. And, lastly, in the 
great humanitarian movement of still later times, 
it cannot be doubted that the men who led the 
way to the abolition of torture, slavery, and many 
other forms of civil and religious oppression 
from which the civilised world has not long been 
released, were animated less by a calm judicial 
spirit and dramatic insight into the general 
character of the age, than by a fiery impatience 
of the evils with which the world was infested, 
and a conviction that those evils were un- 
necessary and eradicable, 

The merits and demerits, the advantages and 
disadvantages, of this class of character are 



Literary Sketches 



Hf S/ SALT. 




LONDON : 

SWAN SONNENSOHEIN, LOWREY <t CO., 

PATEENOSTER SQUABE. 

188& 



Two Kinds of Genius. 



almost inevitable, shortcomings of all enthusiasts, 
and this is the penalty which they are condemned 
to pay for them in the opinion of ordinary 
people. Let us now turn to consider the other, 
the philosophic, class of character. 

To some minds it will always appear irrational 
and unfair to draw a hard-and-fast line between 
what is commendable and what is blameworthy, 
in a world where the good and evil are so 
strangely blended and intermixed. All must 
alike deplore the evil, and all alike desire the 
good ; but we must exercise a wise tolerance in 
extirpating the one and a wise patience in 
promoting the other. To root up violently the 
tares from among the wheat may do more injury 
than to let both grow together awhile. There 
are many who believe that the man who by life- 
long experience, and study of all phases of life 
and every variety of character, is able to give to 
the world some great artistic work, some faithful 
copy of life, true to nature in the humblest 
details, does far greater service to mankind than 
those whose over-eager anticipation of the good 
warps their minds and narrows their intellectual 
vision. To such thinkers as these the true 
teachers and reformers of mankind will always 
appear to be those great objective poets and 
many-sided philosophers who have taken this 
wide and tolerant view of life, and who are able 
to sympathise with every system and form of 



Two Kinds of Genius, 



human thought without any expression of 
personal adherence or dissent. What can be 
more liberal, more comprehensive, more world- 
wide, than the poetry of Homer ? In him there 
is no passion, no bias, no partiality, no half-views 
of things ; his spirit is large and patient as the 
spirit of nature herself. The words of Carlyle 
about nature might be applied also to these 
great natural poets : 

" We are to remember what an umpire nature is ; what a 
greatness, composure of depth and tolerance there is in her. 
You take wheat to cast into the earth's bosom ; your wheat 
may be mixed with chafl^ chopped straw, barn sweepings, 
dust, and all imaginable rubbish ; no matter : you cast it 
into the kind just earth ; she grows the wheat — the whole 
rubbish she silently absorbs, shrouds it in, says nothing of 
the rubbish. The yellow wheat is growing there ; the good 
earth is silent about the rest — has silently turned all the rest 
to some benefit too, and makes no complaint about it ! So 
everywhere in nature ! She is true and not a lie ; and yet so 
great, and just, and motherly in her truth."* 

And if this is true of Homer, still more is it 
true of the greatest of all poets, Shakspere ; the 
secret of whose strength is the knowledge that 
there is a soul of goodness in things evil. "He 
seems to have been sent," says Mr. Ruskin, in 
his estimate of Shakspere^s genius,f "essentially 
to take universal and equal grasp of the human 
nature ; and to have been far removed therefore 

* On Heroes^ chap. ii. t Modem Painters^ vol. iv., p. 372. 



8 Two Kinds of Genius. 

from all influences which could in the least warp 
or bias his thoughts. It was necessary that he 
should lean no way ; that he should contemplate 
with absolute equality of judgment the life of 
the court, cloister, and tavern, and be able to 
sympathise so completely with all creatures as to 
deprive himself, together with his personal 
identity, even of his conscience, as he casts him- 
self into their hearts. . . . Not for him the 
founding of institutions, the preaching of 
doctrines, or the repression of abuses.*' 

I have mentioned the greatest only, but in 
addition to these many others might be cited as 
illustrations of the same calm judicial spirit and 
intellectual strength, all of them artists rather 
than moralists, yet surely to those who feel with 
them none the less excellent teachers of moral- 
ity. 

Yet this philosophical kind of genius, no less 
than the more impassioned spirit of humanitarian 
reformers, has its own special shortcomings and 
imperfections. It cannot, indeed, be accused of 
intellectual narrow-mindedness or religious fan- 
aticism ; nor can we suppose that men of this 
stamp had not well considered the deepest 
problems of life, because they were not carried 
away by personal predilection and enthusiasm ; 
but it may, to some extent, lie open to the 
suspicion of coldness and indifference to human 
suffering. If it be true that inhumanity, tyranny, 



Two Kinds of Genius. 



and injustice have been amended by the 
unceasing protests and earnest endeavours of 
reformers and philanthropists, and if we unite in 
praising those who have abolished these evils, 
how can we consistently and entirely applaud 
the equanimity of those writers who have 
ignored them ? While there is so much real 
evil in the world, it seems impossible to maintain 
an attitude of calm impartiality without sacrificing 
some of the noblest moral sympathies to the 
maintenance of the dramatic proprieties. Was 
there no suffering in Homer s time ? And must 
not those who read between the lines of the 
Odyssey and Iliad suspect that, in these faithful 
pictures of an early stage of society, distance 
often lends some of the enchantment to the 
view ? We praise Chaucer for his wide human 
sympathies and tolerant spirit, and the genial 
pictures he draws of national life ; but was the 
picture entirely a complete one ? Langland's 
poem, Piers the Plowman, is a terrible witness 
to the fact that in the midst of all that tale-telling 
and merriment, there was even then a skeleton 
in the cupboard in the form of deep suffering 
and discontent among the down-trodden peasant 
population. Shakspere is, in the main, well 
content with his country, " This blessed spot, 
this earth, this realm, this England ; " yet we can 
see from Utopia, that, in the opinion of a thinker 
no less profound than Sir Thomas More, the 



I o Two Kinds of Genius. 

state of ** this other Eden, demi-paradise," was 
very far from being entirely blissful in the six- 
teenth century. ** Is not this," he says, '* an 
unjust and unkynde publyque weale, whyche 
gyveth fees and rewardes to gentlemen, as they 
call them, and to gold-smythes, and to each 
other, whiche be either ydle persones, or 
els onlye flatterers and devysers of vague plea- 
sures : and of the contrary parte maketh no 
gentle provision for poor plowmen, coliars, 
laborers, carters, yron-smythes, and carpenters, 
without whome no common wealthe can con- 
tine we ? *' * 

Again, if we look at the present century, we 
shall see the same defects in the characters of 
modern objective writers, such as Goethe, Scott, 
Browning ; and this will become more apparent 
if we contrast them with writers of the opposite 
type, such as Hugo, Shelley, Swinburne. If we 
recognise in Goethe the leading intellectual 
figure of this century, it must not blind our eyes 
to the fact that he is deficient in those emotional 
and sympathetic qualities which constitute pre- 
cisely the strength of Victor Hugo. If we 
praise Scott for his close grasp of facts and 
objective realities, we must remember also that 
he had not a spark of that fiery enthusiasm for 
suffering humanity which is Shelley's noblest 
characteristic. Among poets of our own day 

* " Utopia." Robinson's translation. 



Two Kinds of Genius. 1 1 

we must undoubtedly give the palm to Mr. 
Browning for great dramatic power and wide 
intellectual scope. Yet he cannot claim the 
honour of having lent to the cause of liberty and 
religious freedom such sympathy and assistance 
as was given by the more impassioned lyric 
inspiration of Mr. Swinburne's Songs Before 
Sunrise, 

It is important also to notice, as I said before, 
that every thoughtful man leans naturally to one 
or the other of these great lines of thought ; for, 
though it is only by real genius that great ideas 
are originated and expressed, yet the realisation 
of such ideas, or at least the full recognition of 
their author s merits, is often due to the efiforts 
of less gifted men, who are drawn to this or that 
theory which is more congenial with their own 
natural inclination. 

And thus it happens that while the virtues of 
great men of the philanthropic or philosophic 
stamp are often unduly extolled by their respec- 
tive admirers, their faults are as often unduly 
exaggerated by those of the contrary persua- 
sion. To the sober-minded adherents of the 
more practical and observant school there 
often seems to be little else in the passionate 
utterances of reformers than shallow enthus- 
iasm and theatrical declamation. In like manner 
the grave impartiality and quiet self-control 
of the philosophic thinkers is often miscon- 



1 2 Two Kinds of Genius. 

strued by those who differ from them, into 
mere callousness or indifference. In short, 
each of these two kinds of genius has its own 
deficiencies and imperfections, no less than its 
advantages. 

It is an error, however, to suppose that they 
are necessarily antagonistic or contradictory ; 
we are not driven to the alternative of pro- 
nouncing one to be true and the other false. It 
is far wiser to suppose that both are true, as far 
as they go, though they view life from different 
standpoints, and neither in itself can fully satisfy 
the understanding. They each tell the truth, 
and nothing but the truth ; but to know the 
whole truth it is necessary to learn the double 
lesson of their united teaching. The world is 
full of grievous injustice, which is from time to 
time redressed and righted by the genius of some 
great reformer who devotes his life-work to the 
service of his fellow-men. All that he teaches, 
however burning his enthusiasm and zeal, is in 
itself true and just ; but in the very enthusiasm 
with which he is inspired there lies a new 
danger, the danger of forgetting that the evil 
was not all evil, but was interwoven and mingled 
with good. Hence it is of the utmost import- 
ance to keep before our eyes a wider and clearer, 
though perhaps colder and less enthusiastic, 
view of life and society ; and this is done by 
those who show us a more complete and faith- 



Two Kinds of Genius. 1 3 

fully drawn picture of society. Thus a balance 
is kept between the two extremes, and while 
each kind of genius becomes, as it were, supple 
mentary to the other, their united result is a solid 
gain for the progress and happiness of mankind. 



Shelley as a Teacher. 

It is the object of this paper to exhibit Shelley 
in the character of teacher rather than poet. 
His poetical fame is now almost universally 
acknowledged, but many of his admirers are 
content to pass lightly over the matter of his 
teaching, as though it were erroneous or un- 
important ; even Mr. Symonds, in his other- 
wise appreciative review,^ comes to the con- 
clusion that the real lesson of his life and 
writings ** is not to be sought in any of his 
doctrines, but rather in his fearless bearing, his 
resolute loyalty to an unselfish and in the 
simplest sense benevolent ideal." My desire is 
to show that this is an under-estimate of the 
importance of Shelley *s doctrines, which, under 
one form or another, seem to be destined to 
play an important part in determining the 
course of thought, and therefore cannot be so 
lightly dismissed. It is perhaps natural enough 



* « 



English Men of Letters." 



Shelley as a Teacher. 15 

that such impassioned utterances as those of 
Shelley should have met with scanty ap- 
preciation. The sublime, we know, always 
borders on the ridiculous ; and in estimating 
such a character it is often difficult, as in the 
case of Swedenborg, to draw the line between 
enthusiasm and hallucination. But when en- 
thusiasm is guided and tempered by the powers 
of calm and sober reason, there results from 
this union the most beautiful of all human 
characters. So it was with Shelley, whose in- 
tellect was in truth eminently keen and power- 
ful, notwithstanding the assertion, so often 
made, that he was a weak thinker. All his 
biographers bear witness to the fact that he 
was a profound and subtle disputant, and very 
far from being the mere wild singer and vision- 
ary that some would now wish him to appear. 
This is well expressed by Dr. Garnett in his essay 
on Shelley : * 

** We must leam to think of Shelley not merely as gentle, 
dreamy, unworldly, imprudently disinterested, and ideally 
optimistic — though he was all this — but likewise as swift, 
prompt, resolute, irascible, strong-limbed, and hardy, often 
very practical in his views of politics, and endowed wiih 
preternatural keeness of observation." 

This being so, it is strange that we should 
set such high value on his purely literary work, 

* ** Fortnightly Review," 1878. 



1 6 Shelley as a Teacher. 

while we scarcely pause to examine the great 
idea by which nearly all his poems are inspired. 
His life-work was devoted to one clear and 
definite end, which he kept steadily before his 
eyes, and followed with singular firmness and 
consistency. As he himself tells us in the 
introduction to Prometheus Unbound^ he had 
" a passion for reforming the world.'* This 
reformation was to be affected not by bloodshed . 
and civil strife, but by the gentler and surer 
process of argument and education. It was by 
his poems that he hoped to carry out the divine 
mission with which he was entrusted. He says 
in the preface to The Revolt of Islam\ '4 have 
sought to enlist the harmony of metrical 
language, the etherial combinations of the fancy 

... in the cause of a liberal and compre- 
hensive morality." Thus, like a second 
Lucretius, he proposed to sweeten his doctrine 
with the honey of melodious rhythm and 
beautiful imagery. But it should always be 
remembered that his primary object was to 
teach and persuade, and that his poetry was 
for the most part employed only to effect this 
result. 

There is a singular consistency between 
Shelley's life and writings. In early boyhood 
he solemnly dedicated himself to his task of phil- 
anthropy and reformation, and throughout his 
lifetime all his intellectual powers were devoted 



i^ 



Shelley as a Teacher. 1 7 

to this end. In the opening stanzas of The 
Revolt of Islam he thus describes the first 
awakening to the new life : 

" I do remember well the hour which burst 
My spirit's sleep : a fresh May dawn it was 
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass, 
And wept, I knew not why ; until there rose 
From the near schoolroom voices that, alas ! 
Were but one echo from a world of woes — 
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes. 

And then I clasped my hands, and looked around. 

But none was near to mock my streaming eyes. 

Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground ; 

So, without shame, I spake — * I will be wise, 

And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies 

Such power ; for I grow weary to behold 

The selfish and the strong still tyrannise 

Without reproach or check.' I then controlled 

My tears; my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold." 

The resolution thus earnestly made was 
conscientiously kept. Some years later, in 
reviewing his past life, Shelley could truly say 
in his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty : 

" I vowed that I would dedicate my powers 
To thee and thine : have I not kept my vow ? " 

This Hymn to Intellectu/il Beauty was 
written shortly after what may be called the 
close of the first part of Shelley's life. During 
that period, he seems to have entertained the 
belief that his theories for the regeneration of 

B 



1 8 Shelley as a Teacher, 

man might be carried into effect even in the 
present time, and accordingly we find him 
personally advocating his doctrines with 
extraordinary pertinacity. He is described 
in the Shelley Memorials as a boyish enthusiast, 

"Whose enthusiasm never wanes, and whose voice is 
seldom silent ; who, with the eloquence of conviction, 
obtrudes his doctrines at all times ; who seeks the young- 
est daughter in the schoolroom, and the butler in the pantry, 
to make them converts." 

So too at Oxford, brought face to face with 
the narrow orthodoxy of the College autho- 
rities, he could not content himself with a silent 
disbelief: he would neither conform, nor 
abstain from proclaiming his non-conformity, 
and the publication of a pamphlet, entitled The 
Necessity of Atheism^ resulted in his expulsion 
from the University. Then came his first 
marriage, and his visit to Ireland, made in 
order to take a practical part in the amelior- 
ation of that country. Within a year after this 
expedition, Queen Mab had been written, and 
the equally remarkable notes to Queen Mab, 
In the meantime, Shelley had put another of 
his theories into practice, by the adoption of a 
vegetarian diet. 

Looking back over these years, Shelley must 
indeed have felt that he had conscientiously 
fulfilled the resolution of his boyhood. Yet he 



Shelley as a Teacher. 1 9 

must have felt also some disappointment at the 
temporary failure of many cherished plans, for, 
in spite of all his efforts, there was no visible 
improvement among mankind. We can hardly 
doubt that the following words of the Essay on 
Love were written with reference to this time : 

" I know not the internal constitution of other men, not 
even thine, whom I now address. I see that in some 
external attributes they resemble me ; but when, misled by 
that appearance, I have thought to appeal to something in 
common, and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have 
found my language misunderstood, like one in a distant 
and savage land." 

These words mark the sense of that loneli- 
ness and disappointment and temporary failure 
which have been felt by every true reformer. 
But in the second period of Shelley's life, which 
was mainly spent in Italy, he seems to have 
looked to the future, and not the present, tor 
the realisation of his schemes. Yet his firm 
faith in the ultimate triumph of his principles 
was never for an instant shaken ; nor did he 
relax for an instant his efforts to ameliorate the 
condition of mankind. 

Let us proceed now to a consideration of the 
religious and moral tendencies of Shelley's 
teaching. The chief and cardinal doctrines of 
Shelley s creed is Love, And by this is meant 
love in its most universal sense, something 
much more than individual affection or philan- 



20 Shelley as a Teacher. 

thropic benevolence — love not only of mankind, 
but of all creation. This love of nature is the 
central point, both of his religion and morality ; 
his duty to God and duty to man are both alike 
comprised in this. 

And first, as regards Shelley's religious 
views, I may here remark that the popular 
opinion which represents him sometimes as an 
atheist, sometimes as a sceptic, are both equally 
fallacious. Shelley was no atheist, though in 
the combative zeal of youth he may have 
delighted so to style himself : he was rather a 
pantheist, believing, as we learn from his 
Adonais, in the all-pervading presence of 
universal love. With still less truth could he 
be called a sceptic ; since his religious, or anti- 
religious convictions were fixed, decided, and 
thoroughly sincere. On this point it is interest- 
ing to compare his character with that of 
Byron, the true sceptic, who had no fixed 
belief, and little reverence, but ** flew about 
from subject to subject like a will-o'-the-wisp, 
touching them with a false fire, without throw- 
ing any real or steady light on any."*^ Shelley, 
on the contrary, had an essentially religious 
nature, and was filled with profound veneration 
for the good. Hogg says of him, that ** the devo- 
tion, the reverence, the religion, with which he 
was kindled towards all masters of intellect, 

* Medwin, ii. 147, 



Shelley as a Teacher. 2 1 

cannot be described, and must be utterly in- 
conceivable to minds less deeply enamoured with 
the love of wisdom.'*^ We learn from the 
Shelley Memorials that *' the more exalted 
Platonical speculations of his later life made 
Shelley discontented with the somewhat cold 
though qualified materialism of Queen Maby''\ 
and about the year 181 5 he became an ad- 
herent of the immaterial philosophy of Berkeley, 
who asserted that matter itself is nothing but a 
perception of the mind. But his great and 
cardinal belief was undoubtedly in the perfecti- 
bility of man, the belief that the good is more 
potent than the evil, and that man's redemption 
must be worked out by no external revelation, 
but by the innate sense of virtue and love. 
As a rule, he was indifferent to all theological 
disputes and abstruse questions of religion. 
He regarded all priestcraft with aversion, and 
looked forward to the age of intellectual free- 
dom and universal toleration, when, as he says 
in the Ode to Liberty, 

" Human thoughts might kneel alone, 
Each before the judgment throne 
Of its own aweless soul, or of the power unknown." 

It is obvious, therefore, that Religion, in the 
ordinary sense of the word, must hold a far less 

* Hogg i. 242. 
I Shelley Mem. 54. 



22 Shelley as a Teacher. 

important place in Shelley's teaching than 
Morality, the relation of man to man. It was 
to *' the cause of a liberal and comprehensive 
morality," that, as I have already remarked, he 
devoted all his poetical faculties. 

There can be no greater mistake than to 
suppose that Shelley's convictions were merely 
the result of the thoughtlessness of youth, or 
the imperfection of education, or, as a Cam- 
bridge essayist has surmised, that ** if Shelley's 
honest doubts had been openly and liberally 
met by those with whom he first came in 
contact, his after-life might have been very 
different to that which it actually was."* The 
fact is, that from the first Shelley was no 
doubter, honest or dishonest, but was filled 
with the absorbing conviction that while all 
religious dogma is false and injurious, man may 
yet attain to perfection by the light of his own 
reason and his innate sense of gentleness and 
love. In this belief Shelley never faltered : it 
was this that upheld him through all the 
struggles and sorrows of his life. We must 
approve or condemn him, according as each 
shall think right ; but the fact remains that this 
was the secret of his strength. 

Turning now to the question of morality, in 
which Shelley was, for the most part, a pupil 
of William Godwin, the author of Political 

* Cambridge Prize Essay, 1877. 



Shelley as a Teacher. 23 

Justice, we find that here, as in religion, the 
sole motive-power of Shelley's creed is Love. 
Love is the one and only source of those two 
great qualities, the bulwarks of morality, 
gentleness and virtue. It is impossible to 
prove to a man that gentleness is better than 
cruelty, virtue than vice ; one can only appeal 
to that intuitive sense of good, for which Love 
is the most comprehensive name that can be 
found. In Shelley's own words : ** If a man 
persists to inquire why he ought to promote 
the happiness of mankind, he demands a 
mathematical or metaphysical reason for a 
moral action." 

Love is therefore the origin of all morality, 
but there is another condition that is insepar- 
able from a perfectly moral state, and that is 
Freedom — for only those who are free can be 
entirely and perfectly moral. If we say then 
that Morality is the child of Love, we must 
admit that it is the fosterchild of Freedom, for 
by Freedom only can it attain to maturity and 
perfection. Accordingly, in Shelley's poems, 
we everywhere find Love and Liberty cele- 
brated as the saviours of the human race. 

The two moral qualities on which Shelley 
most frequently dwells, and of which his own 
life affords the most conspicuous example, are 
those I before mentioned — gentleness and 
virtue. Gentleness is perhaps more often in- 



24 Shelley as a Teacher. 

culcated by Shelley than any other quality. 
And, rightly understood, it is the chief of all 
virtues, as cruelty is the chief of all crimes. 
For gentleness is identical with unselfishness : 
it is that widely sympathetic spirit that prompts 
us to injure no living thing. Among in- 
dividuals true gentleness can only exist in 
conjunction with simplicity of life, for in exact 
proportion as a man lives in needless luxury, 
he causes labour and degradation to his fellow- 
men, and pain and suffering to the lower 
animals. For this reason Shelley, the apostle 
of gentleness, repeatedly insists on the necessity 
of simplicity of life. In Epipsychidion he 
says : 

" Our simple life wants little, and true taste 
Hires not the pale drudge Luxury to waste 
The scene it would adorn, and therefore still 
Nature, with all her children, haunts the hill." 

And again in the Essay on Christianity : " The 
man who has fewest bodily wants approaches 
nearest to the Divine nature. Satisfy these 
wants at the cheapest rate, and expend the 
remaining energies of your nature in the attain- 
ment of virtue and knowledge." For the same 
reason Shelley himself, as all his biographers 
bear witness, lived with the utmost frugality. 
Leigh Hunt's account is as follows : 

" This was the round of his daily life. He was up early, 
breakfasted sparingly, wrote this Revolt of Islam all the 



Shelley as a Teacher. 2 5 

morning ; went out in his boat, or in the woods, with some 
Greek author or the Bible in his hands ; came home to a 
dinner of vegetables (for he took neither meat nor wine) ; 
visited, if necessary, the sick and fatherless, whom others 
gave Bibles to and no help ; wrote or studied again, or read 
to his wife and friends the whole evening, took a crust of 
bread, or a glass of whey for his supper, and went early to 
bed." 

Such was his life at Marlow in 181 7, and his 
mode of living in Italy seems to have been 
equally abstemious. " Bread," says Trelawny, 
*' was literally his staff of life." **Wine," says 
Medwin, **he never touched with his lips." 

But the gentleness which Shelley teaches 
does not only condemn what is openly cruel or 
violent ; it sanctions nothing that is selfish or 
uncharitable. There is an ^/^gentleness in 
peaceful as in warlike occupations, and it is not 
surprising that Shelley should dwell as strongly 
on the][crime of selfishness as seen in modern 
commerce as on cruelty itself. He says in 
Queen Mab. 

" Hence commerce springs, the venal interchange 
Of all that human art or nature yield ; 
Which wealth should purchase not, but want demand. 
And natural kindness hasten to supply 
From the full fountain of its boundless love.'* 

This may sound Quixotic ; yet it is essentially 
the same lesson as that which Ruskin has 
taught us that the maxim of the political 
economist, *' to buy in the cheapest market, and 



26 Shelley as a Teacher. 



sell in the dearest," is selfish and ungentle. 
It may be worth while to quote his words : * 

" They will find that commerce is an occupation which 
gentlemen will every day see more need to engage in, rather 
than in the businesses of talking to men or slaying them : 
that in true commerce, as in true preaching or true fighting, 
it is necessary to admit the idea ofoccasional voluntary loss ; 
that sixpences have to be lost, as well as lives, uuder a sense 
of duty." 

It was this sense which made Shelley adopt 
opinions which in the present day would be 
called socialistic. He repeatedly urges that 
there is no real wealth except in the labour of 
man, and that the rich are in reality the pen- 
sioners of the poor. The present system of 
society, he thinks, '*must be overthrown from 
the foundation, with all its superstructure of 
maxims and forms." Like Godwin, however, 
he trusted that this revolution might be brought 
about without violence or bloodshed by the 
spread of enlightenment and gentleness. 

Virtue, according to Shelley's doctrine, must 
be based solely on natural purity of heart. 
There must be no restraint ; no fear ; no con- 
sideration ol conventional propriety ; no hope 
of reward, either in this world or the next ; for 
an action is only virtuous when it is freely and 
spontaneously performed. In his Essay on 
Christianity, Shelley strongly enforces the 

* Unto this Last, p. 30. 



Shelley as a Teacher. 27 

principle that virtue is its own reward, and that 
it must be independent even of the hope of 
immortality. Commenting on the words, 
'* Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall 
see God," he thus explains the latter expression : 

" Whosoever is free from the contamination of luxury and 
licence, may go forth to the fields and woods, inhaling joyous 
renovation from the breath of spring, or catching from the 
odour and sounds of autumn some diviner mood of sweetest 
sadness, which improves the softened heart ; whosoever is 
no deceiver or destroyer of his fellow-men — no liar, no 
flatterer, no murderer — may walk among his species, deriving, 
from the communion with all which they contain of beautiful 
or of majestic, some intercourse with the universal God. 
Whosoever has maintained with his own heart the strictest 
correspondence of confidence, who dares to examine and to 
estimate every imagination which suggests itself to his mind, 
whosoever is that which he designs to become, and only 
aspires to that which the divinity of his own nature shall 
consider and approve — he has already seen God." 

Shelley's life was consistently in accord with 
his writings, and through all his career he in- 
variably strove to practise what he preached. 
In one point only has the virtue of his life been 
seriously questioned, and that is on the question 
of marriage. On this subject he held that all 
legal constraint is foolish and immoral, and he 
undoubtedly held this opinion in perfect honesty 
and consistency. It will be sufficient to quote 
his own words from the notes to Queen Mab : 
" Love is inevitably consequent on the per- 



28 Shelley as a Teacher. 

ception of loveliness : its very essence is liberty : 
it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy, 
nor fear : it is then most pure, perfect, and un- 
limited, when its votaries live in confidence, 
equality, and unreserve." I am aware that in 
after-years Shelley refused to be held responsible 
for the theories advanced in Queen Mab, which 
was published without his consent ; but there is 
no reason to suppose that he ever changed his 
opinion on the question of the marriage-law. 
It was formerly thought to be a sufficient con- 
demnation of Shelley's views, to point to the 
unhappy results of his first marriage. But the 
publication of Professor Dowdens Life of 
Shelley has now given us for the first time a re- 
liable account of that portion of Shelley's career, 
and the evidence which he adduces, though by 
no means with the object of exculpating Shelley 
from all blame, must at least have the effect of 
relieving him of the charge of having ** deserted " 
his wife, or having been in any way responsible 
for her death. 

Gentleness and virtue are, therefore, the two 
qualities which, according to Shelley's teaching, 
are inseparable from a moral state. But, as I 
said before, true morality can only be developed 
under favourable conditions, and of these liberty 
is the chief. In the Ode to Liberty, it is liberty 
that is described as bringing wisdom " from the 
inmost cave of man s deep spirit." There is 



Shelley as a Teacher. 29 

probably no writer who has advocated liberty so 
passionately as Shelley ; and his theories are in 
consequence generally regarded as dangerous 
and pernicious, or at best as the wild ravings of 
a mere visionary and enthusiast. Yet it should 
be remarked that in his strongest invectives 
against kings and priests he never admits the 
idea of vengeance or persecution : his doctrine 
is always to overcome evil with good ; liberty 
is to be gained not by violence but endurance. 
He simply advocates the principle of universal 
toleration. 

On the subject of civil liberty, and the right 
method of obtaining it, his views find their fullest 
expression in The Masqtie of Anarchy, where 
he calls upon the English people to overcome 
the violence of their oppressors by passive and 
indomitable endurance. 

" Let a great assembly be, 
Of the fearless and the free, 
On some spot of English ground, 
Where the plains stretch wide around. 
. • . 

And if then the tyrants dare. 
Let them ride among you there. 
Slash and stab and maim and hew ; 
What they like, that let them do. 
• • • 

And that slaughter to the nation 
Shall steam up like inspiration ; 
Eloquent, oracular; 
A volcano heard afar." 



30 Shelley as a Teacher. 

Such was Shelley's theory of passive protest- 
The only occasion on which he took any practical 
part in political matters was when he visited 
Ireland in 1812, and published his Address to the 
Irish People and other documents. As might 
have been expected, his visit was a failure in its 
immediate consequences ; but his address is in 
itself very remarkable for its sagacity and 
moderation. Indeed, as Mr. Symonds remarks, 
*' Catholic emancipation has since been brought 
about by the very measure he proposed, and 
under the conditions he foresaw.' 

In foreign policy Shelley was an equally 
ardent champion of oppressed nations, and has 
left in Hellas a splendid memorial of his love for 
Greece. Here, too, time has shown the wisdom 
of his views, as will appear from the following 
passage in the preface to Hellas : 

" Russia desires to possess, not to liberate Greece ; and 
is contented to see the Turks, its natural enemies, and the 
Greeks, its intended slaves, enfeeble each other, until one or 
both fall into its net. The wise and generous policy of 
England would have consisted in establishing the independ- 
ence of Greece, and in maintaining it against both Russia 
and the Turks." 

But the kind of liberty which Shelley most 
eloquently and urgently advocates is of course 
freedom of thought. He is never weary of de- 
claiming against religious intolerance and the 
tyranny of social custom. These views find 



Shelley as a Teacher. 3 1 

their most impassioned expression in the Ode to 
Liberty^ and are worked out at greater length 
in The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound. 
In all fiction there is scarcely a sublimer con- 
ception than Shelley's Prometheus. In some 
respects he resembles the Satan of Paradise 
Lost^ and the Titans of Keats' Hyperion, but 
the difference is still more striking. In these 
we see the shadowy forms of great and colossal 
heroes, who in their fallen state still cherish 
lofty aspirations, though wild regret and frantic 
indignation are now uppermost in their minds. 
Prometheus, on the contrary, is calm and 
passionless ; his subjection is only temporary, 
and he is upheld through all his sufferings by a 
serene and fearless expectation of his ultimate 
triumph. In him we see a picture of the 
eternal struggle of right against might, and in 
this poem Shelley s ideal principle reaches its 
highest development. Prometheus, the repre- 
sentative of liberty and gentleness, ceaselessly 
struggling against Jupiter, the representative of 
despotism and cruelty, is the very incarnation of 
all that Shelley ever thought, or said, or did. 

Such, in the barest outline, are the main 
features of Shelley's teaching. His opinions 
will doubtless appear to many to be a strange 
mass of wild, though philanthropic speculation, 
and it must be admitted that he looks less at what 
is practically and immediately attainable than 



32 Shelley as a Teacher. 

at what is positively just. Yet there are many 
also in whose opinion a creed such as this is 
destined to play a most important part in the 
future of the world, standing as it does between 
the two extremes of superstition and materialism. 
It is not unfrequently said that there is no con- 
sistent resting-place between these two, and that 
men s choice must ultimately lie between the 
ancient religious dogma, on the one side, with 
all its treasury of fears and hopes, and modern 
scepticism, on the other, with its cold and 
passionless system, incapable alike of hope or 
fear. There are some, however, who will not 
accept this dilemma, but believe that the future 
of the world belongs rather to this Shelleyan 
idealism, which possesses the strength of both 
creeds and the weakness of neither. It is 
wholly free from the taint of superstition, while 
it possesses love and enthusiasm, which supply 
the only worthy motive for morality, and are a 
continual source of thankfulness and joy. Again, 
it can boast the perfect freedom of thought 
which is the glory of modern science, while it 
is free from the sad and joyless spirit, which is 
hardly separable from a state of real scepticism. 
In this belief alone can be found the complete 
union of morality and reason : here alone can be 
found the perfect religion of love. There is a 
memorable passage in the Shelley Memorials^ 
where we read that when Shelley visited the 



Shelley as a Teacher, 33 

cathedral at Pisa, in company with Leigh Hunt, 

" the noble music of the organ deeply affected Shelley, 
who warmly assented to a remark of Leigh Hunt's, that a 
divine religion might be found out, if charity were really 
made the principle of it, instead of faith." 

To end as I began, I will repeat that love is 
the chief and cardinal doctrine of Shelley's 
creed, and through love is to be wrought out the 
perfection of the human race. It is easy to 
brand such theories with the epithets ** senti- 
mental *' and " Utopian.' Yet, after all, there is 
not much to be proud of in the belief that the 
human race is incapable of a regeneration which 
has seemed possible to its most enthusiastic 
children. If it be a fact that the perfectibility 
of man is a mere dream, we should accept such 
a conclusion with sober and saddened hearts, 
and at least refrain from railing at those whose 
utmost crime it has been to think too well of 
their fellow-creatures. The philanthropic doc- 
trines which Shelley advances are only im- 
practicable in this strictly limited sense, that 
men at present are not sufficiently unselfish to 
practise them. We have, however, no right to 
conclude beforehand that future generations will 
be equally incapable of reformation. Time 
may yet prove the truth of Shelley's lines : 

" We might be otherwise ; we might be all 
We dream of; happy, high, majestical" 

c 



34 Shelley as a Teacher. 

Having now considered the general moral 
tendencies of SheIIey*s teaching, it remains for 
me to say a few words about the manner in 
which that teaching was expressed. To an en- 
thusiast such as Shelley, literary style must in 
Itself have appeared a matter of secondary 
importance ; and I need only notice here one or 
two salient points in which his manner of writing 
was directly influenced by the leading purpose 
of his life. Owing to his enthusiastic devotion 
to one great idea, the composition of most of 
his poems is less finished and artistic than 
would otherwise have been the case, herein 
differing widely from that of Keats, whose 
mind, undisturbed and undivided by strong 
religious or political sympathies, was at leisure 
to dwell entirely on what is beautiful and calm. 
Shelley's sentences, on the contrary, are not 
carefully weighed and polished and refined, but 
are poured forth, like the song of his own sky- 
lark, "in profuse strains of unpremeditated art." 
He is too eager about the matter of his teaching 
to be greatly concerned as to the precise method 
of conveying it. 

There is another noticeable defect in Shelley's 
writings, this too caused by his intense serious- 
ness and absorbing devotion to his cause. His 
nature was by no means deficient in humour, as 
may be seen from his satire on Wordsworth in 
Peter Bell the Thirds and from other poems of 



Shelley as a Teacher. 35 

a similar vein. But the humour, though not 
absent, was often latent and forgotten, and this 
prevented his seeing the frailties of his fellow- 
men from any but the saddest side. His 
characters have great virtues or great vices, but 
they have no small foibles or eccentricities : he 
weeps at the littleness of human nature, but he 
cannot smile. He has none of the playful yet 
sympathetic humour which could draw such 
characters as Sir Roger de Coverley or Colonel 
Newcome. But these faults, if faults they be, 
are after all insignificant when compared with 
the immense benefits which Shelley derived from 
his firm faith and unswerving devotion. It was 
this faith alone that could inspire him with that 
wonderful energy and inexhaustible flow of 
language which make him unique among our 
poets, and caused Lord Macaulay to write of 
him as follows: "The words bard and in- 
spiration^ which seem so cold and affected when 
applied to other modern writers, have a perfect 
propriety when applied to him. He was not an 
author, but a bard. His poetry seems not to 
have been an art, but an inspiration." 

It should be remembered, too, that in spite 
of these artistic defects in his didactic works, 
Shelley has left poems which, even from an 
artistic point of view, are scarcely inferior to 
anything in our language. '* Not only did he 
write the best lyrics, but the best tragedy, the 



36 Shelley as a Teacher. 

best translations, and the best familiar poems 
of his century." So says his biographer in 
' English Men of Letters/ and there is certainly 
no exaggeration in the remark. Such high 
lyrical inspiration has never yet been united 
with such high artistic skill, as in the Ode to the 
West Wind, the Question, the Ode to Liberty, 
and a host of other odes and songs which I need 
not here enumerate. Again though Shelley 
cannot be called a great dramatist, yet The 
Cenci is undoubtedly one of our greatest dramas ; 
from beginning to end a masterpiece of artistic 
perfection ; a marvel of objective writing by the 
most subjective of poets. The Adonais^ too, is 
a model of consummate art ; Keats himself has 
left us nothing more faultlessly and symmetrically 
beautiful than this. These two poems alone 
are sufficient to prove that there is no natural 
or inherent artistic blemish in Shelley's work. 
But, writing in the full fervour of poetical in- 
spiration, he for the most part could not pause 
to elaborate and refine. It was better that his 
poems should bear the stamp of genuine and 
passionate conviction, than that they should be 
free from faults of detail in their style and work- 
manship. 

And, lastly, a word about Shelley himself. 
He had several characteristics that have en- 
deared him to many readers beyond all other 
poets of his generation. His beauty and youth ; 



Shelley as a Teacher. 37 

the freshness and simplicity of his life ; his 
womanly purity of mind ; his unselfishness and 
high devotion to his cause ; all these have con- 
spired to invest his memory with a peculiar 
charm. We look back to him with something 
more than ordinary veneration and hero-worship ; 
the least reminiscence of him is precious ; there 
is something almost startling in the fact that 
persons lately living had seen and conversed 
with him. Of whom else could it have been 
written as in Mr. Browning's Memorabilia ? 

" Ah, did you once see Shelley plain, 
And did he stop and speak to you, 

And did you speak to him again ? 
How strange it seems and new ! " 

A reminiscence of Shelley is, indeed, as Mr. 
Browning describes it, as it were a moulted 
eagle-feather fallen upon the blank and barren 
moorland of ordinary life. Still more beautiful 
and reverential is the tribute paid to Shelley's 
memory by the late James Thomson (" B.V ") 
a writer who himself inherited no small share of 
Shelley's rhythmic melody and rapturous in- 
spiration. It is from his privately published 
poem on Shelley that the following stanzas are 
taken : 

" A voice of right amidst a world gone wrong, 

A voice of hope amidst a world's despair, 
A voice instinct with such melodious song 



J 



3 8 Shelley as a Teacher. 

As hardly until then had thrilled the air 
Of this gross underworld wherein we fare 
With heavenly inspirations, too divine 
For souls besotted with earth's sensual wine. • 

All powers and virtues that ennoble men — 

The hero's courage and the martyrs' truth, 

The saint's white purity, the prophet's ken, 
The high unworldliness of ardent youth. 
The poet's rapture, the apostle's ruth, 

Informed the Song ; whose theme all themes above 

Was still the sole supremacy of Love." 



I 
f 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 

It is interesting to contrast the present reput- 
ation of a great poet with the hostile criticism 
to which he was subjected during his previous 
career. Since the time when Coleridge declared 
that he " could scarcely scan " some of Tenny- 
son's verses, full fifty years have passed by, and 
the Poet Laureate has now obtained a literary 
eminence and wide-spread popularity such as 
probably no poet has ever enjoyed in his own 
lifetime. Almost every line that he now writes 
is greeted with universal applause, and the 
unsparing severity of former criticism has been 
succeeded by the almost servile adulation of a 
later age. 

Lord Tennyson s claim to be the first poet of 
our time is generally based on the ground that 
he is the representative singer of the generation 
in which he lives, and that he has appreciated 
and expressed in his writings, more faithfully 



40 The Tennysonian Philosophy. 

and more delicately than any other poet, the 
thoughts and feelings of his fellow-countrymen. 
He stands before us less in the light of a great 
teacher than a great singer ; and if the sound- 
ness of his philosophical views be at any time 
called in question, his admirers generally are 
ready with the answer that the true function of 
the poet is not to instruct, but to please ; not to 
lead, but to represent the age in which he lives. 
This may or may not be true as regards the duty 
of poets in general, but it certainly is not the 
course that has been followed by Lord Tennyson ; 
it is not the view that he himself has taken of his 
own duties and capabilities. It would have been 
better for him and for all of us if he had thought 
It well to follow the wise example of Gray, and 
Collins, and Keats, and restrict himself to that 
art of poetry in which he has so few rivals. 
For if ever a poet has come near to perfection 
in his work, Lord Tennyson has done so in those 
poems where a great but simple thought had to 
be expressed, and where was no room for the 
introduction of any controversial matter. For 
example, in Ulysses we have a splendid re- 
presentation of the indomitable energy of the 
will ; in the Lotos Eaters of rest ; in St, Agnes 
Evey of purity and resignation ; in Rizpah, of 
horror, and pity, and love. But, unfortunately, 
the Poet Laureate was not content with this 
simplicity of subject ; he has deliberately descend- 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 41 



ed into the arena of strife, and must be judged 
accordingly. Indeed, it was so obviously useless 
to attempt to exonerate him from this criticism 
that his earlier and more enthusiastic admirers 
boldly took the bull by the horns and claimed for 
him the position of a great teacher and thinker.* 
It will be found, I fear, that his thoughts, when 
sifted, are light as chaflf, and that his philosophical 
system is a mixture of opportunism and shallow 
optimist theories. In his delightful poem of Will 
Waterproofs Lyrical Monologue, he has de- 
scribed the process of his own poetic inspiration, 
and the influence of his M use : 

" Until the charm have power to make 
New life-blood warm the bosom, 
And barren common-places break 
In full and kindly blossom." 

One could hardly desire a more correct 
description of Lord Tennyson*s poetical philo- 
sophy. It is expressed in language of the 
fullest and kindliest blossom ; but the common- 
places of his thought will be found on investi- 
gation to be very barren indeed. 

Let us now proceed to consider the tendency 
of the Poet Laureate's teaching on questions of 
religion, morality, and politics. Lord Tenny- 
son is often claimed as an ally by the orthodox 

* Three Great Teachers of our Age, Smith and Elder, 1865. 



42 The Tennysonian Philosophy. 

church party ; but it may be doubted whether he 
is at heart a very sound champion of the faith, 
at any rate on the question of the truth of 
Christian dogma. It should be noticed that on 
this subject the assistance he has given to 
orthodox belief has been less by any outspoken 
avowal than by hints and suggestions, which 
imply a sympathetic feeling, but are no guarantee 
of personal adherence. He gives the Christian 
the advantage, so to speak, of the best position 
in his poems ; he loves to throw a favourable 
light on the orthodox portions of the picture 
and an unfavourable light on the reverse ; and 
thus in an indirect way he has undoubtedly done 
service to the church. But his attitude is 
always such as to suggest the idea that he 
believes Christian doctrine must be upheld less 
for its own inherent truth, than because it is 
bound up with some external advantage to man- 
kind. As an instance of this indirect approval, 
we may refer to the passage in Ihe Two Voices^ 
where the speaker, after long hesitation between 
the advantages of death or life, is cheered by 
the sweet and balmy airs of a lovely Sabbath 
morning. 

" Like softened winds that blowing steal. 
When meres begin to uncongeal. 
The sweet church bells began to peal. 

On to God^s house the people prest : 
Passing the place where each must rest, 
Each entered like a welcome guest." 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 43 

The sight of this solemn scene rescues the 
would-be suicide from the gloomy depths of his 
despair. It is a slight touch, but it is 
characteristic of Lord Tennyson's narrow and 
partial delineations of human nature. 

Other examples will readily occur to the 
mind ; perhaps the most striking is to be found 
in one of his later poems, In the Children s 
Hospital There, among various characters, we 
have a description of a terrible doctor, with red 
hair, big voice, big merciless hands, fresh from 
the surgery-schools of France, and addicted to the 
worst practices of vivisection, who roughly in- 
forms the hospital nurse that one of the children 
under her charge is dying and will need no more 
of her care. When she timidly suggests that 
there is the more need **to seek the Lord Jesus 
in prayer," he treats her with brutal scorn ; 

'^ Then he muttered half to himself, but I know what I heard 

him say 
* All very well — ^but the good Lord Jesus has had his day.' " 

In this passage Lord Tennyson has deliber- 
ately gone out of his way to couple disbelief with 
roughness and brutality, and I cannot imagine 
anything more disingenuous than to draw a 
picture which may conceivably be true in itself, 
but is calculated to suggest an absolutely 
erroneous inference to the mind. There may be 
doctors like the one described, devoid of all 



44 T"^^ Tennysonian Philosophy, 

gentleness and humanity ; but it is not their 
belief or disbelief that has made them so. 
Gentleness is not an invariable concomitant of 
Christianity any more than of scepticism. 

We shall come to still worse instances by-and- 
bye on other questions, but this is no unfair 
example of the illogical and indirect aid which 
the Poei Laureate renders now and again to the 
church party on the subject of Christianity. 
He never meets the unbeliever face to face as 
an avowed opponent, but he sneaks behind him 
and trips him up unawares, or gives him a foul 
blow ** below the belt," while posing all the time 
as the impartial and philosophical by-stander 
who wrote those famous lines (but that was 
many a year ago), 

" There lives more faith in honest doubt, 
Believe me, than in half the creeds." 

Such is Lord Tennyson's attitude with regard 
to Christianity. But there is another question 
in which he has taken a far more pronounced 
part, and has shown himself more and more 
intolerant and dogmatic in his advancing age ; 
though, unfortunately, here also he has adopted 
that circuitous and illogical method which I 
have just noticed. The immortality of the soul 
is not merely the cardinal belief of the Poet 
Laureate's philosophy — in that he would be at 
one with many of the best and noblest teachers 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 45 

of mankind ; but it is the sine qud non of his mor- 
ality, the condition without which life is worth- 
less, the criterion by which he passes immutable 
judgment on the characters of his fellow-men. 
To illustrate this it will be necessary to touch 
briefly on three or four of his poems, and first 
on In Memoriam, the tenderest and noblest of 
all his works. It is worthy of remark that in 
this poem, where he himself felt most deeply, he 
is least intolerant of the opinion of others. As 
he himself says : — 

" If these brief lays, of sorrow born, 
Were taken to be such as closed 
Grave doubts and answers here proposed, 
Then these were such as men might scorn." 

This is a true and sensible estimate of the 
philosophical value not only of In Memorianty 
but of all Lord Tennyson's poetry ; and had this 
wise thought been kept in remembrance such a 
poem as Despair would never have been written, 
and that ill-starred drama The Promise of May 
would never have made its brief appearance on 
the stage. But even in In Memoriam, tender 
and beautiful as the poem is, we may discover 
the germs of that fatal fallacy, lately developed 
to the full in the Poet Laureate's philosophy, 
that happiness and morality in this present life 
are dependent on a belief in a future existence. 

" Not only cunning casts in clay : 
Let Science prove we are, and then 



46 The Tennysonian Philosophy. 

What matters Science unto men — 
At least, to me ? / would not stay. 

Let him, the wiser man, who springs 
Hereafter, up from childhood shape 
His action like the greater ape, 

But I was born to other things." 

Passing over this astounding misrepresent- 
ation of the theory of evolution, let the reader 
note well the extraordinary idea of ''not stay- 
ing;'' for therein is struck the key-note of 
much of the Tennysonian philosophy. It is in- 
deed sad that a great writer should lend his 
sanction to the foolish clamour, so often raised 
by those who cling desperately to some par- 
ticular form of belief, that unless their special 
doctrine be true, life would no longer be worth 
living, and the call of duty would no longer fall 
with authority on our ears. How different 
from this cuckoo-cry are the noble words of 
Frederick Robertson, himself a far firmer be- 
liever than Lord Tennyson : — 

*' If there be no God and no future state, yet. 
even then, it is better to be generous than 
selfish, better to be true than false, better to be 
brave than to be a coward. Blessed beyond all 
earthly blessedness is the man who, in the 
tempestuous darkness of the soul, has dared to 
hold fast to these venerable landmarks.'* * 

This, however, is not the opinion of the Poet 

* Address to Brighton working men. 



Tfie Tennysonian Philosophy. 47 

Laureate. With him there must be a sure 
belief in futurity, or there can be no action in 
the present. Virtue is not her own reward, as 
we have lately been taught by some mistaken 
moralists, but, as we learn from the poem 
entitled WageSy needs 

'* The glory of going on, and still to be." 

But let me quote Lord Tennyson's own 
words : — 

"The wages of sin is death : if the wages of virtue be dust, 
Would she have heart to endure for the life of the worm 
or the fly ? " 

One would have thought that even under 
these depressing circumstances a really religious 
and virtuous man would find much work to do 
in the world, and many a duty to perform ; but 
virtue, in the gospel according to Lord Tenny- 
son, thinks otherwise. Take away the eternity 
on which she has set her heart, and — " She will 
not stay." 

But if there is some faulty teaching in Wages 
and In Memoriam, what shall we say when we 
come to Despair and The Promise of May f 
In the former of these we have a terrible picture 
of a hopeless life and attempted suicide ; in the 
latter of a life spent in deliberate vice and 
heartless libertinism ; in both we are given to 
understand that the evil is the direct con- 
sequence of scepticism and unbelief. Can any- 
thing be more grossly unfair and misleading 



48 The Tennysonian Philosophy. 

than this? No doubt cases may occur where, 
in a peculiar class of character, loss of belieif 
leads to unhappiness and even ruin ; but that 
can hardly be held to justify a poet or dramatist 
in taking such individual cases and representing 
them as a general law. It would be at least 
equally easy to produce instances where exactly 
the contrary has occurred, where disbelief in the 
supernatural has led to a surer morality, a 
sounder judgment, and an altogether happier 
estimate of life. But, we know, any stick is 
good enough to beat a dog with ; and, in his 
crusade against dogs of unbelievers, Lord 
Tennyson has no scruples as regards his choice 
of weapons. 

Since morality, according to the Poet Lau- 
reate's teaching, is thus dependent on the hold- 
ing of certain religious beliefs, we shall not 
be surprised if we find it taking strange forms 
in some of the characters which he has delineated 
in his poems. His treatment of the chief char- 
acters in the Idylls of the King^ especially at 
the close of the story, will furnish a remarkable 
instance of his modus operandi. Anyone who 
has read Sir Thomas Malory's History of King 
Arthur, compiled about the year 1470 from 
still earlier romances, must have noticed how 
greatly Lord Tennyson is throughout indebted 
to the old historian for the subject-matter and 
even the words of his Epic. But there is one 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 49 



important difference in his version of the 
Arthurian legend, and that too in the most vital 
and interesting part — the love of Lancelot and 
Guinevere. In the old story, though the fatal 
results of this guilty love are narrated sternly 
and unsparingly, the fact is never lost sight of 
that the lovers are true to each other to the 
bitter end ; it is Lancelot and not the King 
who visits Guinevere in the sanctuary ; it is 
Lancelot who, after the Queen's death, bears 
her body from Almesbury to its resting-place 
at Glastonbury ; it is Lancelot who lingers and 
agonizes over her tomb, until death relieves 
him from his sorrow, and '* the angels heave up 
Sir Lancelot towards heaven, and the gates of 
heaven open against him." Nothing can exceed 
the simple pathos and dignity of the story as 
thus told by the ancient historian, and those 
who know and love it cannot readily forgive 
Lord Tennyson for the alterations he has 
thought fit to introduce, however beautiful the 
language, in his Idyll Guinevere. The sudden 
repentance of the Queen ; the discovery that 
Arthur, not Lancelot, is her own true lord ; the 
one hope to be the mate of Arthur ** hereafter 
in the heavens " — all this is very gratifying to 
the cheap and easy-going morality of the 
nineteenth century, but it is very untrue to 
nature, and very unlike the work of a great 
teacher. 



50 The Tennysonian Philosophy, 

When we come to consider the poems in 
which Lord Tennyson treats of social subjects 
we shall find that here, even less than in religious 
questions, is he entitled to the position of a leader 
of thought. Perhaps the theme which he has 
handled most powerfully is the iniquity of 
the loveless marriages of fashionable life, the 
'* woman-markets of the west." In at least two 
poems this is the direct cause of the tragic end- 
ing, and in another and greater one it is closely 
connected with it. All readers must admire the 
noble scorn and indignation which are the key- 
note of Ay Inzer's Field and the earlier Locksley 
Hall, and in few other poems can one find such 
splendour of language and imagery. Yet the 
mingled weakness and violence of Leolin in 
Ay Inter s i^^^/<a^ disgust us almost as much as the 
amazing folly and selfishness of the hero of 
Locksley Hall, and in both poems the moral 
effect, which might otherwise have been very 
great, is ruined by the utterly foolish and 
immoral bearing of the most important character. 
It is very interesting to compare Locksley Hall 
with Mr. Brownings The Worst of It diud Mr. 
Swinburne's The Triumph of Time, In all 
these poems we find the same subject — the 
character of a disappointed lover ; but while Mr. 
Browning sand Mr. Swinburne's heroes bear their 
sorrows with noble and unselfish magnanimity, we 
find in Mr. Tennyson's hero such vulgar selfish- 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 5 1 

ness and almost brutal violence as make the poem 
unspeakably inferior in dignity and moral effect. 
The subject of Maud is, of course, a much 
wider and deeper one, but its defects are sub- 
stantially the same. The surpassing charm of 
this poem ought not to blind our eyes to the 
strange moral blemishes which are the more 
monstrous and unnatural owing to the beauty of 
their surroundings. Maud herself is indeed 
eminently pure and faultless, but the character 
of her lover is so drawn as to make him almost 
contemptible in the eyes of the reader. No 
doubt his character was meant to be that of a 
selfish solitary, redeemed by love and sorrow to 
a sense of our common human fellowship ; but, 
unfortunately for the moral of the poem, the 
hero s conduct is even more insane at the end 
than the beginning. The duel which brings 
about the final catastrophe could not have taken 
place but for his own wicked pride and childish 
folly ; yet, amidst all his subsequent ravings, we 
never find a trace of true repentance or remorse. 
Then, again, the whole poem is saturated with 
** Jingoism " of the worst description, which 
reaches its culminating point when it is dis- 
covered that the one event which can comfort 
the bereaved lover, and restore him to a sphere 
of usefulness and activity, is — the Crimean war ! 
What are we to think of the moral teaching of a 
writer who was so carried away by the bellicose 



52 The Tennysonian Philosophy, 

spirit of the time as to use all the resources of 
his art and poetical skill to vilify peace and 
glorify war ? 

I should like to remark, before leaving this 
part of our subject, that the characters drawn by 
Lord Tennyson are, with few exceptions, con- 
spicuous for some grave defect, some moral flaw, 
which is the more fatal because it is unintentional 
on the part of the author. For of all faults to 
which a teacher of morality is liable, the worst 
is obviously that of not knowing whether he is 
describing what is moral or the contrary. If we 
study the Tennysonian characters, whether it be 
the hero of Maud^ rushing off to the wars to 
kill other people because he has been unfortunate 
in his domestic career ; or the hero of Locksley 
Hall, departing "seaward," and invoking a 
thunderbolt on his Amy's residence ; or Leolin, 
in Aylmers Field, committing suicide on the 
news of Edith's death ; or the nurse in The 
Children s Hospital passionately asserting that 
she could not serve in the wards unless Chris- 
tianity were true ; we shall recognise in all of 
them the same moral defect, the same lack of 
any solid faith and well-founded enthusiasm, such 
as alone can enable a man to fight the battle of 
life for the sake of virtue itself and without re- 
ference to any selfish ulterior consideration. 
They all mean well ; but they are all subject to 
the same unfortunate weakness before alluded 



The Tennysonian Philosophy, 53 



to, that, under the stress of trial or disappoint- 
ment, they cannot stay. 

On the other hand, there is another class of 
characters, of a less violent and unreasonable 
type (and these are distinctly held up for our 
admiration), in which we shall find defects which, 
if not so glaring, are at least as inveterate and 
dangerous. How is it that in the Arthurian 
Idylls the sympathy of the reader is rather with 
the erring Lancelot then the blameless King ? 
Surely because in the character of Arthur there 
is a deep blot of selfishness and unctuous self- 
approval. That long sermon which he pro- 
nounces over the prostrate Guinevere could 
hardly have been uttered by a man of deep and 
tender feeling ; a true-hearted husband could 
hardly sum up his wife's offences with the sang 
frotd oidi judge. The purity of Arthur is what 
Carlyle calls ** the purity of dead dry sand ; " and 
after reading his story one feels more strongly 
than ever that " best men are often moulded out of 
faults," and that the blameless Arthur is not one 
of these. 

In Enoch Ardeny we have, perhaps, the most 
truly heroic of all Mr. Tennyson's heroes, though 
I cannot agree with the critics who would regard 
him as a similar conception to the Prometheus 
of -^schylus or Shelley.* Yet the plot of the 

* Cf. Three Great Teachers of our Age, " Enoch Arden 
is, in fact, the Promethean poem of the day." 



54 The ITennysonian Philosophy. 

story, though the intent is pure, is strangely 
unfortunate in its conclusion. The noble en- 
durance and self-sacrifice of Enoch is, as far as 
Annie s- peace of mind is concerned, spoiled and 
stultified by the result. The object of com- 
municating the news of Enoch's death is to re- 
lieve Annie's mind of the fear that he may still 
be living ; yet what would be the state of mind 
of a wife who learned, not that her former 
husband had long been dead, as she had hoped 
and been assured, but that his funeral was even 
now to take place ; that he had been dwelling 
for a year in the same village as herself, and 
haunting her window like a ghost ? It seems to 
be overlooked that there could be nothing but 
torture in such news as this, and that there is an 
unpardonable artistic blemish in leaving the 
story in such a helplessly morbid position. 

If we turn to the political teaching of Lord 
Tennyson, we shall find in it little more than a 
mild optimism, and an attempt to strike the 
golden mean by avoiding " the falsehood of 
extremes." 

" Ah yet, tho* all the world forsake, 

Tho' fortune clip my wings, 
I will not cramp my heart, nor take 

Half views of men and things. 
Let Whig and Tory stir their blood ; 

There must be stormy weather ; 
But for some true result of good 

All parties work together." 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 55 



The wisdom of such a doctrine is apparent 
rather than real ; for history surely teaches us 
that truth does not always, or of necessity, lie 
between two extremes ; there have been great 
questions as of Peace or War, Liberty or Slavery, 
where one party has been wholly and entirely in 
the right, and the other party wholly and en- 
tirely in the wrong. There are some great prin- 
ciples, even in politics, which one must accept 
and believe altogether, or not at all, and which 
one cannot afford to cahulate or compromise. 
To be for ever straining to strike the balance 
between rival parties, and to assume a position 
of philosophic impartiality, is the characteristic 
of one who follows and does not lead the age, 
the mark of political scepticism rather than 
political wisdom. 

In short, the whole philosophy of Lord Tenny- 
son's writings is that of a ** representative *' and 
not an original poet. One may find in his works 
the current theories and speculations of the age, 
stated with marvellous force and unexampled 
felicity of expression, but the man who, amid 
the din of conflicting creeds, seeks for moral or 
religious guidance and support, such as thousands 
have sought and found in the teaching of Carlyle 
and Browning and Ruskin, will look in vain for 
such assistance in the writings of the Poet 
Laureate. 



56 The Tennysonian Philosophy. 



" The man of science himself is fonder of glory and vain ; 
An eye well practised in nature, a spirit bounded and poor ; 
The passionate heart of the poet is whirled into folly and 

vice. 
I would not marvel at either, but keep a Umperate brainy 

Such seems to be the leading and ever-present 
idea of the Tennysonian philosophy. But in 
this endeavour it may be that something more 
is lost than is gained, for it is sometimes for- 
gotten that the passionate hearts of poets are 
whirled into other things besides folly and vice, 
such things as noble enthusiasm, unshaken faith 
in mankind, and uncompromising love of the 
good. However temperate the brain may be, 
no system of mild optimism, expressed in how- 
ever magnificent language, can be weighed in 
the balance against the wiser and truer, though 
more passionate, utterances of those poets who 
are the real teachers of mankind. 

After what we have seen of the Poet Laureate's 
opinions, religious, social, and political, I do not 
think we can justly be surprised at his having 
become a member of the House of Lords. He 
was always a half-hearted Liberal in his youth ; 
and in his old age he has become more and 
more illiberal and dogmatic. He cannot cor- 
rectly be called a '* Lost Leader," for he never 
was a leader of thought, certainly not of advanced 
thought ; yet, in one sense, he has done battle 
for the party of progress, for all true poets, apart 



The Tennysonian Philosophy. 57 



from their teaching, must in some degree aid 
the great cause. And, whatever we may think 
of Lord Tennyson's philosophical teaching, we 
must all alike admire and revere his grand poet- 
ical gifts ; indeed it is just because we do so re- 
vere them, because we have known his poems 
from childhood, and have conned them over and 
over till they have become almost a part of our 
being, it is precisely for this reason that we de- 
plore the intolerant tone of his later writings 
and the final hallucination which has made him 
deem it expedient to prefix to the name of 
Alfred Tennyson an empty and inglorious title. 
Yet it should be remembered that this last 
act, which excited such widespread surprise 
among almost all classes of Englishmen, was 
nothing more than the culminating point of a 
process which had long been going on. It can- 
not be denied that during the last ten years the 
whole weight of the Poet Laureate's influence has 
been thrown more and more in favour of the 
aristocratic and reactionary party ; while pro- 
fessing to stand aloof from the troubled element 
of politics, he has, for all practical purposes, 
done all that he could to arrest the march of free 
thought, and to hinder the awakening of the 
people. The bigoted and intolerant tone of 
many of his late poems, especially the sequel to 
Locksley Hall, has caused sorrow and dis- 
appointment to all true-hearted reformers, and 



58 The Tennysonian Philosophy, 



is the more deplorable and inconsistent since it 
comes from one who formerly posed as himself 
a champion of independent thought and a lover 
of liberty. But, after all, it is perhaps better 
that reformers should now have in Lord Tenny- 
son a professed opponent rather than a luke- 
warm friend ; and, in spite of his great and de- 
served reputation as a poet, his loss to the cause 
of liberty will be found to be less serious than 
might at first sight be imagined. For, while we 
fully admit the greatness of his purely poetical 
powers, we have no hesitation in asserting that 
the thought which runs through his writings is 
as feeble as the expression is beautiful. His 
philosophy, if such it can be called, was false 
and hollow from the beginning, and has become 
more and more unscientific with increasing age 
and intolerance. 



The Works of James Thomson. 

C B. vr) * 

The conditions which underlie the appearance 
of poetic genius are proverbially mysterious and 
inscrutable. Seldom, however, has Fate in- 
dulged in a stranger and more whimsical freak 
than in assigning one and the same name to two 
writers of such widely diverse temperaments as 
the placid, contented, and mildly optimistic poet 
whose Castle of Indolence still remains the most 
perfect expression of a life of leisured quietude, 
and the unhappy pessimist who could write 
Mater TenebraruTn and the City of Dread- 
ful Night. One cannot but fear that this in- 
congruous identity of name may in future years 
be a cause of trouble and confusion to a be- 
wildered posterity. It certainly seems a trifle 

'''The City of Dreadful Nighty and other poems, 1880. 
Van^s Story y and other poems, 1881. Essays and Phan- 
tastes, 1 88 1. A Voice from the Nile, and other poems. 
With a memoir, by Bertram Dobell, 1884. (Messrs. Reeves 
& Turner.) Satires and Profanities, 1884. (Progressive 
Publishing Company.) Shelley, a poem, with other writings 
relating to Shelley. (Printed for private circulation, 1884.) 



6o The Works of James Thomson (^^ B. V^) 

hard on the elder poet, the respectability of 
whose name has hitherto been beyond question 
in the most orthodox quarters, that his reput- 
ation should now be compromised, if not 
eclipsed, by the brilliant but erratic genius of 
his namesake, the youngest member of the 
poetic brotherhood. Comparisons are odious, 
but sometimes unavoidable. The Castle of hi- 
dolence is indeed a splendid structure, which 
none but a master-hand could have reared ; 
but hereafter there may tower beside it — for 
are not the names of the two architects identi- 
cal ? — a City of still more colossal and 
majestic proportions. 

At present, however, there is little danger of 
any such untoward confusion or comparison, for 
the simple reason that the genius of the younger 
James Thomson is still almost unknown to the 
mass of English readers. It is true that some 
first-rate critics have expressed strong interest 
and admiration for ''B.V.'s'** poems; George 
Eliot, W. M. Rossetti, George Meredith, and 
George Saintsbury being among the earliest to 
recognise the remarkable merits of the City of 
Dreadful Night ; yet, in spite of many favour- 
able notices from competent judges, there has 
never been any general appreciation of Thom- 
son's works. That he could ever become a 

* Bysshe Vanolis^ a notn de plume^ said to have been 
adopted in memory of Shelley and Novalis. 



The Works of y antes Thomson (^' B. V^) 6r 

popular poet was of course rendered impossible 
by the nature of his writings ; but it is strange 
nevertheless that in this, the fourth year since 
his death, he should still be ignored or under- 
rated in many literary cirdles where homage is 
often paid to men of far less distinguished 
genius. 

James Thomson was pre-eminently a sub- 
jective poet ; his life is the key to a proper 
understanding of his writings ; and those who 
read between the lines of his poems and essays 
will not fail to discover that most of them are 
more or less autobiographical. An interesting 
account of Thomson's life may be found in Mr. 
Dobell's Memoir, prefixed to A Voice from the 
Nile. It is a sad record of a talented and 
chivalrous spirit struggling in vain against over- 
whelming misfortunes and afflictions, which 
were aggravated partly by a constitutional 
melancholia, probably inherited from his father ; 
partly by the life-sorrow that dated from the 
sudden death of a beautiful girl to whom he was 
betrothed ; and partly, it must be admitted, by 
the deplorable intemperance that darkened his 
later years. There is a striking similarity in 
the profound sadness of Thomson s career to 
some of the incidents in the life of Edgar Poe : 
the orphaned childhood ; the drudgery of an 
uncongenial profession ; the untimely death of 
one whose image thenceforth could never be 



62 The Works of James Thomson ('' B, V.^') 



banished from the mind or the writings ; the 
poverty and privations of an unsuccessful litefary 
life ; the use of stimulants as a desperate escape 
from the tortures of memory ; and, lastly, the 
sudden death, apart from all friends, in a strange 
hospital — all this is common to the story of both 
poets. But Thomson's melancholy was deeper 
and more real than that of Poe : in lines such 
as the following, wherein he sums up the story 
of his life, there can be no suspicion of any 
poetic exaggeration for artistic purposes : — 

" For there my own good angel took my hand, 

And filled my soul with glory of her eyes, 
And led me through the love-lit Faerie Land 

Which joins our common world to Paradise. 
How soon, how soon, God called her from my side, 

Back to her own celestial sphere of day ! 
And ever since she ceased to be my guide, 

I reel and stumble on life's solemn way. 
Ah, ever since her eyes withdrew their light, 
I wander lost in blackest stormy night." 

Every reader of Thomson s poems must have 
noticed and wondered at the two different tones 
that are heard there ; it seems almost incredible 
that the glad and exultant strains of A Happy 
Poet and Sunday up the River can have been 
written by the author of the City of Dreadful 
Night, Yet the discrepancy is perhaps more 
apparent than real ; for the fact that Thomson 
was endowed with keen powers of enjoyment, 



The Works of James Thomson (^' B, V.^') 63 



and had tasted at times some of the sweets of 
life, only serves to enhance the central and final 
gloom. It may be said of him, as of Schopen- 
hauer, that *' to be on the whole a believer in 
the misery of life, and yet to be occasionally 
visited by a vivid senseof its gleaming gladness, 
is surely the worst of conceivable positions." * 
This was precisely the position in which Thom- 
son's lot was cast ; and there can be no doubt 
that the general tenor of his writings is strongly 
and distinctly pessimistic, in spite of occasional 
intervals of hopefulness or enjoyment. 

It is not, however, as a pessimist, but as a 
poet that Thomson is destined to be known. 
I will, therefore, begin by noticing his chief 
poetical characteristics. Of the three volumes 
of poetry now before the public, two were 
published during Thomson s lifetime, and the 
third in 1884, two years after his death. But 
many of the poems had appeared at earlier 
periods in Tail's Edinburgh Magazine, the 
National Reformer, and other papers, while the 
author's habit of prefixing to each poem the 
date at which it was composed shows us that 
some of his writings were kept in hand many 
years before being published at all ; indeed, 
there was one period of nearly seven years 
(1875-1881) during which, in despair of obtain- 

* Sully's Pessimism^ p. 81. 



64 The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V:' ) 

ing any recognition of his work, he altogether 
ceased to write poetry. This fulness of delibera- 
tion and maturity of workmanship form one of 
the most salient features in Thomson's style. 
He seldom indulges in unpremeditated lyric 
flights or irregularities of metre, and does not 
possess that supreme imaginative faculty which 
can create such poems as the odes of Coleridge 
or Shelley. His peculiarity consists in the rare 
combination of an exquisite harmony of tone, 
and an almost perfect sense of rhythmic melody, 
with a keen, strong, logical cast of mind. Con- 
tradictory as it may seem, his genius was at one 
and the same time both poetical and mathe- 
matical ; he is the connecting link between 
Shelley on the one hand and Browning on the 
other ; and it is curious to observe that certain 
of his poems — Vanes Story ^ for example — have 
been described by some critics as an echo of 
Shelley, by others as an echo of Browning. 
In this respect his position is unique; he suc- 
cessfully combines two mental qualities which 
are usually found to be antagonistic. I do not 
know of any other English poet who has been 
able to express such stern logic of realistic 
thought in such wonderfully subtle melody of 
language. 

That Thomson s poetry has also certain un- 
fortunate mannerisms and blemishes of style 
will not be denied by his warmest admirers. 



The Works of James Thomson ('' B. VJ') 65 

Of the morbid tone that pervades most of his 
chief poems I shall have occasion to speak later 
on : his most conspicuous artistic faults are an 
excessive proneness to allegorical description, 
which sometimes involves the meaning in con- 
siderable obscurity ; and a great inequality in 
the standard of his writing, which occasionally 
lapses into mediocrity and commonplace. In 
some of his poems his habit of coining double 
words is indulged almost to affectation ; thus, in 
the first few stanzas of Bertram to the Lady 
Geraldine, we meet with the following : 
** vision-strange," ** fuU-credentialled," '* world- 
filled," ** dove-quick," ** calm-robed," ** dance- 
ready," ** ethereal-lightly," *' whirl-wanton," 
** lightest-tender," *' dim-steadfast," *' drear- 
barren ; " and many other equally strange com- 
binations might be readily added to the list. 
The complaint made by some critics that Thom- 
son's muse is addicted to faulty rhymes seems 
hardly justifiable ; at any rate, if he sins in 
treating column and solemn as rhymes, and in 
other similar instances, it may be pleaded that 
he sins in excellent company ; though we could 
wish perhaps that he had not extended the 
same licence to war and more. It may be here 
remarked that Thomson's mind seems to have 
been impressionable and receptive almost to a 
fault, for in reading his works we are constantly 
arrested by a reminiscence of Shelley, or the 



66 The Works of James Thomson (''B. V:') 

Brownings, or Blake, or De Quincey, or some 
other favourite author, though there is certainly 
no trace of anything like deliberate imitation. 

Thomson's purely poetic powers, apart from 
his pessimistic teaching, may be studied in his 
lyric pieces and translations from Heine, or such 
narrative and artistic poems as Weddah and Om- 
El Bonain and The Naked Goddess, The 
former of these is a tragic story of Oriental love, 
told in eight-lined stanzas of wonderful beauty 
and vigour. Some of the more pathetic pass- 
ages in this poem recall Keats's Isabella ; 
but the movement, as a rule, is more rapid ; the 
end is kept steadily in view throughout, and 
there is little ornament or digression. It would 
be impossible to do justice to Weddah and Om- 
El Bonain by the quotation of any special 
stanzas ; for its great merit consists in the con- 
summate skill with which the different parts are 
welded together and the thread of the story 
preserved. It is a remarkable poem, and suffi- 
cient in itself to win a lasting reputation for its 
author : some readers will perhaps like it all the 
better because it is free from all elements of a 
personal and subjective nature. Shorter, and 
less ambitious in its scope, yet scarcely less 
delightful, is The Naked Goddess^ a splendid 
allegory descriptive of the untameable wildness 
of the Goddess of Nature, whom the votaries of 
modern civilisation foolishly attempt to clothe. 



The Works of James Thomson ("B. V.") 67 

Vainly do the high-priest and the arch-sage, as 
the spokesmen of the assembled citizens, who 
have flocked out in crowds at the news of the 
shining apparition, urge upon the haughty 
goddess the desirability of conforming to the 
laws of society and assuming the religious or 
philosophic gown. She dismisses them with 
contempt, and asks that some child may be sent 
to her. Then follows a passage very suggestive 
of Blake's style : — 

" So two little children went, 
Lingering up the green ascent, 
Hand in hand, but grew the while 
Bolder in her gentle smile. 

* Tell me, darlings, now,* said she, 

* What they want to say to me.' 
Boy and girl then, nothing loth, 
Sometimes one and sometimes both, 
Prattled to her sitting there 
Fondling with their soft young hair. 
' Dear kind lady, do you stay 

Here with always holiday ? 
Do you sleep among the trees ? 
People want you, if you please. 
To put on your dress and come 
With us to the City home.' 



I )i 



The Naked Goddess is the best of Thomson s 
artistic poems ; but there are several others on 
general subjects which deserve high praise, 
especially In the Roomy a dramatic study full 
of weird tragic force, and A Voice from the 



68 The Works of James Thomson (" B. F") 

NilCy one of the few specimens of Thomson s 
blank verse. The quiet dignity -and latent 
strength of the latter poem are well suited to the 
subject ; in reading these slow and stately lines 
we seem to breathe the same calm air as in 
Landor's Gebir^ and to hear the majestic 
river "lapsing along," as in Leigh Hunt's 
famous sonnet. Unmistakable evidences of 
true poetic genius may also be found in many of 
Thomson's songs and short poems, among 
which I would particularly mention the lines on 
William Blake, A Requiem, E, B, B. — 
memorial verses on the death of Mr3. Brown- 
ing, and the two songs commencing The fire 
that filled my heart of old and The nighting- 
gale was not yet heard. In writing of Mrs. 
Browning, Thomson seems to have uncon- 
sciously caught an inspiration from the peculiar 
style of the poetess, as in the lines : — 

** Italy, you hold in trust 
Very sacred English dust." 

and the same extraordinary similarity of tone 
may be observed in the verses on Blake, which 
are apparently conceived in the very spirit of 
Blake himself. The translations from Heine, 
who, next to Shelley, was Thomson's favourite 
author, have been approved by the best critics 
as admirable attempts in a kind of writing where 



The Works of James Thomson (*'' B. V.'^) . 69 

complete success can scarcely be regarded as 
possible, 

But it is now time to turn to those more 
characteristic poems in which Thomson gives 
free play not only to his poetic genius but to 
his own feelings and emotions. It may be con- 
venient to consider these under two heads : 
first, those which breathe a tone of hopefulness, 
or at any rate of pensive resignation ; and, 
secondly, those of a decidedly gloomy and 
pessimistic cast. It will be found by those 
readers who care to examine the dates of the 
poems that the former belong mainly, though 
not exclusively, to the earlier portion of his life, 
and the latter rather to the dreary period of his 
London career. 

The two Idylls of Cockaigne, Sunday at 
Hampsteady and Sunday up the River^ are 
perhaps the best known of Thomson's writings 
next to the City of Dreadful Night, There 
is a rare charm in the complete abandon of these 
poems and their entire disregard of the social 
bugbear of respectability . They are conceived 
in a spirit of boisterous and irrepressible merri- 
ment, yet there is throughout an undertone 01 
very true and deep feeling which redeems them 
from any taint of coarseness or vulgarity. 
Sunday up the River is decidedly the finer of 
the two, being, indeed, a rich mine of lyric 
poetry of a very high order, and the best con- 



yo The Works of James Thomson (''B.V^) 

tribution made for a very long time to the 
literature of the Thames. Less exuberant in 
tone than these two idylls, but nevertheless 
contrasting strangely with the usual despondency 
of Thomson's writings, are A Happy Poet 
and 7 he Lord of the Castle of Indolence, 
written in 1859. The former describes in lines 
of singular beauty the duties and functions of 
the ideal poet, while the latter depicts the 
character of one of those true-born monarchs, 
those '* right royal kings," 

" Whom all the laws of Life conspire to love and bless." 

In reading The Lord of the Castle of In- 
dolence it is difficult to feel sure whether the 
writer is studying a purely ideal character, or 
glancing at the capabilities of his own youth, or, 
as the title of the poem seems to indicate, referr- 
ing to his own namesake and predecessor in the 
poetic art '* Jamie Thomson, of most peaceful 
and blessed memory/' as he calls him elsewhere. 
But however this may be, these two poems are 
certainly remarkable as coming from the pen of 
a confirmed pessimist. What could be more 
optimistic than the following stanzas from The 
Lord of the Castle of Indolence ? — 

** While others fumed and schemed and toiled in vain 
To mould the world according to their mood, 
He did by might of perfect faith refrain 
From any part in such disturbance rude. 



The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V.") 71 

The world, he said, indeed is very good, 

Its Maker surely wiser far than we ; 
Feed soul and flesh upon its bounteous food, 

Nor fret because of ill ; All-good is He, 
And worketh not in years but in eternity." 

I n the same catholic spirit he writes of the 
duties of A Happy Poet : — 

" For I must sing : of mountains, deserts, seas. 
Of rivers ever flowing, ever flowing ; 
Of beasts and birds, of grass and flowers and trees 

For ever fading and for ever growing ; 
Of calm and storm, of night and eve and noon. 
Of boundless space, and sun and stars and moon."' 

And most supremely of my human kin ; 

Their thoughts and deeds, their valours and their fears, 
Their griefs and joys, their virtue and their sin. 

Their feasts and wars, their cradles and their bierb. 
Their temples, prisons, homes, and ships and marts. 
The subtlest windings of their brains and hearts." 

But, alas ! all poets are not happy poets ; and 
as the years roll on and the troubles of life in- 
crease, the subjects of song are apt to become 
limited, as in James Thomson's case, to the 
darker study of se/f. There is a noticeable 
stanza elsewhere in A Happy Poet^ in which 
this seems to be foreseen : — 

" Is it not strange ? I could more amply tell 
Such woes of men as I discern or dream. 
Than this great happiness I know so well. 

Which is in truth profounder than they seem ; 
And which abides for ever pure and deep. 
Beneath all dreams of wakefulness and sleep." 



72 The Works of James Thomson ('^ B. V^) 

We next come to a group of poems which 
are all inspired to some extent by the same idea 
— a soft and hallowed reminiscence of the lost 
love who was ever present to Thomson's mind. 
Bertram to the Lady Geraldine is a poetic 
rhapsody, passionately conceived, and passion- 
ately executed, and worthy to be placed beside 
Mrs. Browning's wonderful poem, to which it is 
akin in something more than name. The 
Fadeless Bower^ on the other hand, is mqre 
distinctly narrative and autobiographical, per- 
haps the tenderest and most pathetic of all 
Thomsons writings. Very simple yet very 
beautiful are the words in which he recalls that 
•* vision of the Long ago," '^the dear old bower," 
where he reached the crowning point of his life. 

" I have this moment told my love ; 

Kneeling, I clasp her hands in mine : 
She does not speak, she does not move ; 

The silent answer is divine. 
The flood of rapture swells till breath 
Is almost tranced in deathless death. 

The simple folds of white invest 
Her noble form, as purest snow 

Some far and lovely mountain-crest, 

Faint-flushed with all the dawn's first glow ; 

Alone, resplendent, lifted high 

Into the clear vast breathless sky." 

Vanes Story ^ which gives its name to the 
second volume of poems, is also a record of a 



The Works of James Thomson (^' B. V.'') 73 

vision of the same lost love, but told in a more 
fantastic and imaginative style. It does not 
seem to have left a very favourable impression 
on the mind of most of its critics, some of whom 
have not unnaturally taken offence at the re- 
ligious speculations which have rather un- 
necessarily been imported into the poem, while 
others have been puzzled by the odd mixture of 
the supernatural and commonplace, which often 
remind the reader of Mr. Browning's Christrhas 
Eve and Easter Day. Yet Vanes Story 
contains passages of extraordinary beauty ; 
where, for instance, since the days of Shelley, 
could we discern anything more perfectly 
melodious than this ? — 

*' And thou shalt kneel and make thy prayer, 

A childish prayer for simple boon ; 

That soon and soon and very soon 

Our lady of Oblivious Death 

May come and hush my painful breath 

And bear me thorough Lethe-stream, 

Sleeping sweet sleep without a dream ; 

And bring you also from that sphere 

Where you grow sad without me, Dear ; 

And bear us to her deepest cave 

Under the Sea without a wave, 

Where the eternal shadows brood 

In the Eternal Solitude. 

Stirring never, breathing never, 

Silent for ever and for ever ; 

And side by side, and face to face, 

And linked as in a death-embrace, 

Leave us absorbing thus the balm 

Of most divinely perfect calm." 



74 The Works of James Thomson f B, V.^') 

Equally beautiful is the allegory of the 
fountain, apparently typical of Thomson's own 
life, and comparable in many ways with Shelley's 
Sensitive Plant, by which it seems to have been 
suggested. Vanes Story is especially interest- 
ing as throwing much light on the peculiar 
feelings and idiosyncrasies of its author ; it is, as 
Mr. Dobell remarks, " when rightly read, as 
candid and complete an autobiography as was 
ever written," for it shows Thomson in the 
familiar mood in which he was known to his 
friends. But it does not carry us into that last 
and saddest period of his life, when he seems to 
have lost even those glimpses of consolatory 
hope, shadowy and uncertain from the first, of 
meeting his betrothed in some future existence. 
The transition to this final phase of thought and 
feeling may be best understood by reference to 
his essay, entitled A Lady of Sorrow, which 
is, in fact, the prose counterpart of The City 
of Dreadful Night, We find there a de- 
scription of three successive stages of grief, 
which we cannot doubt to be in some measure 
a record of Thomson's own experiences. First 
comes the " Lady of Sorrow," typical of a pure 
and hallowed grief, '* the image in beatitude of 
her who died so young ; " secondly, *' the Siren," 
the period of less blameless sorrow, when the 
"ignoble heart found ignobler companionship," 
being no longer worthy " to be comforted with 



The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V.*') 75 



angelic communion ; " and last, "the Shadow,*' 
the spirit of total gloom ; ** never more an 
Angel, seldom more a Siren, but now a formless 
Shadow, pervading my soul as the darkness of 
night pervades the air." In this dreary region 
of desolation and despair the poet can find only 
one consolatory thought, and that is the pro- 
spect of death, that *' Lady of Oblivion " whom 
he invokes with such solemnity and earnestness 
in his singularly beautiful poem To our Ladies 
of Death. 

"O sweetest Sister, and sole Patron Saint 

Of all the humble eremites who flee 
From out life's crowded tumult, stunned and faint, 

To seek a stern and lone tranquillity 
In Libyan wastes of time : my hopeless life 
With famished yearning craveth rest from strife ; 

Therefore, thou Restful One, I call on Thee ! 

Take me and lull me into perfect sleep ; 

Down, down, far-hidden in thy duskiest cave ; 
While all the clamorous years above me sweep 

Unheard, or like the voice of seas that rave 
On far-off coasts, but murmuring o*er my trance 
A dim vast monotone, that shall enhance 

The restful rapture of the inviolate grave." 

There are several minor poems that prefigure 
the advent of The City of Dreadful Night. 
Of these, the earliest is The Doom of a City^ 
written in 1857, which contains several fine 
passages, but fails somewhat in its general 



76 The Works of James Thomson ('^ B, V'') 

effect, through being too discursive and alle- 
gorical. Mater Tenebrarum (1859) is one 
of the saddest and bitterest of all Thomson's 
outbusts of grief, a cry of anguish from a soul 
torn asunder between hope and despair, at one 
moment almost venturing to believe in its own 
immortality, and then again relapsing to the 
creed of '*a blind and stony doom." It is al- 
most a relief to turn from this poem to The 
City of Dreadful Night, in which we feel at 
once that we have reached Thomson's master- 
piece, the work by which, more than any other, 
he will be judged by posterity. We here see 
the poetry of pessimism in its most attractive 
garb ; for the reasoning which inspires the poem, 
sad though it be, is calm and consistent 
throughout, and is expressed in language of 
consummate grace and tenderness. The City 
of Dreadful Night is an allegorical description 
of the dark side of human life, the '*sad 
fraternity" who inhabit the city being those 
whose hope and faith is dead, since they have 
ventured to stand face to face with the stern 
facts of existence. How they have arrived 
there they cannot themselves determine, but, 
once being citizens, they must " dree their 
weird '' to the bitter end ; for their case is more 
desperate than that of Bunyan's pilgrims who 
were taken captives by Giant Despair, there 
being no ** Key of Promise " which can open 



The Works of y antes Thomson (^^ B,Vy) 77 

the gates of this " dolent city." The imagery 
under which the city is depicted was obviously 
suggested by the poet's reminiscences of his 
own London life, and the best clue to a right 
understanding of the whole poem will be found 
in the third part of A Lady of Sorrow, the 
prose essay already mentioned. **And I 
wandered about the city," he there writes, "the 
vast Metropolis which was become as a vast 
Necropolis. Desolate indeed I was, although 
ever and anon, here and there, in wan haggard 
faces, in wrinkled brows, in thin compressed 
lips, in drooping frames, in tremulous gestures, 
in glassy hopeless eyes, I detected the tokens 
of brotherhood, I recognised my brethren, in 
the great Freemasonry of Sorrow." It is to 
these brethren, as he tells us in the Proem, that 
the writer appeals. 

" Yes, here and there some weary wanderer 

In that same city of tremendous night 
Will understand the speech, and feel a stir 

Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight ; 
I suffer mute and lonely, yet another 
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother 

Travels the same wild paths though out of sight." 

The City of Dreadful Night is arranged 
in a series of short cantos where two metres are 
used alternately, the first consisting of seven- 
lined stanzas, of which the fifth and sixth lines 



78 The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V.'') 

.—■i t ■ » 

always end in a dissyllable, as in the example 
just quoted ; the second consisting of stanzas of 
six lines, broken from time to time by the in- 
terposition, for dramatic purposes, of other 
metres. The seven-lined stanzas, into which 
no variation is introduced, are devoted to 
describing the appearance of the city and 
moralising on the darker mysteries of its life. 
The dense atmosphere, the baleful glooms 
dimly lit by the struggling lamps, the sombre 
mansions looming through the murky air, the 
dreary streets where the inhabitants wander 
like ghosts ; where the eye learns a new power 
of vision, and the accustomed ear catches 
muffled throbs of suffering, or the jar of phantom 
wheels — all this is described with reality of 
lurid word-painting, unequalled since the time 
of Coleridge and De Quincey. The '* English 
opium-eater" has himself recorded that the 
chief '* virtue" of opium lies in **the faculty of 
mental vision, the increased power of dealing 
with the shadowy and the dark." This power 
was undoubtedly possessed in an eminent degree 
by the author of The City of Dreadful Nighty 
though it may be that it was acquired by the 
use of some less romantic but not less potent 
drug than that which De Quincey has im- 
mortalised. There is a dreadful and vivid 
reality about Thomson*s dream-pictures, which 
makes it difficult to suspect him for a moment 



The Works of James Thomson ^ B. V^) 79 

of cultivating a taste for this ** night-side of 
human nature" by a voluptuous indulgence in 
stimulants ; a charge which Coleridge advanced 
against De Quincey, and which De Quincey 
angrily retorts.^ However that may be, there 
can be no question about the poetic excellence 
of Thomson*s work. Here is an instance of a 
short canto full of weird imagery which suggests 
still more than it describes : — 



<c 



It is full strange to him who hears and feels, 
When wandering there in some deserted street, 

The booming and the jar of ponderous wheels. 
The trampling clash of heavy ironshod feet : 

Who in this Venice of the Black Sea rideth ? 

Who in this city of the stars abideth 

To buy or sell as those in daylight sweet ? 

The rolling thunder seems to fill the sky 
As it comes on ; the horses snort and strain, 
■ The harness jingles, as it passes by ; 

The hugeness of an overburthened wain : 
A man sits nodding on the shaft or trudges 
Three-parts asleep beside his fellow-drudges ; 
And so it rolls into the night again. 

What merchandise ? Whence, whither, and for whom ? 

Perchance it is a Fate-appointed hearse. 
Bearing away to some mysterious tomb 

Or Limbo of the scornful universe 

* " Ay, indeed ! Where did he learn that ? , . . Cole- 
ridge began in rheumatic pains. What then ? This is no 
proof that he did not end in voluptuousness." — De Quincey^ 
xi. 109. 



8o The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V'') 

The joy, the peace, the life-hope, the abortions 
Of all things good which should have been our portions 
But have been strangled by that City's curse." 

The alternate cantos of six-lined stanzas are 
employed for the dramatic introduction of 
certain scenes and characters, which serve to 
illustrate and enforce the hopeless condition 
of the wanderers in the city. One citizen, 
** shadow-like and frail/' is described as perpet- 
ually revisiting the spots which had witnessed 
successively the death of Faith, of Love, of 
Hope. Another narrates how he "strode on 
austere " through a desert filled with phantom 
shapes and unimaginable horrors. A third has 
reached the welcome portal of death, where 
those who enter must leave all hope behind, 
but, alas ! having no hope to leave, he is re- 
jected until he can pay the fated toll. In an- 
other scene a bereaved lover kneels beside the 
body of his mistress, which lies in state in a 
gloomy mausoleum. Elsewhere, in a mighty 
cathedral, a preacher, with *' voice of solemn 
stress,*' urges on his hearers the lesson that 
'* the grave's most holy peace " is the sure con- 
solation for the ills of existence ; but even this 
comfort is rejected as a mockery by "a 
vehement voice " which rises from the northern 
aisle and narrates the brief story of a blank and 
inconsolable life. In these and other similar 



The Works of y antes Thomson (^' B, V'') 8i 



scenes the same moral, though viewed from 
different standpoints, is again and again stated 
and reiterated : life is a cheat and delusion, and 
the only comfort — if comfort it be — is the 
certainty of death. Not even Keats could have 
described the blissfulness of *' easeful death *' 
with more softness of rhyme and unfeigned 
yearning of heart than Thomson has done in 
passage after passage of The City of Dreadful 
Night. Even suicide is several times referred 
to as a justifiable and praiseworthy escape from 
intolerable misery ; one of the most splendid 
cantos in the poem being that which describes 
the *' River of the Suicides," where night by 
night some wanderer finds relief: — 

They perish from their suffering surely thus, 
For none beholding them attempts to save, 

The while each thinks how soon, solicitous, 
He may seek refuge in the self-same wave ; 

Some hour when tired of ever-vain endurance 

Impatience will forerun the sweet assurance 
Of perfect peace eventual in the grave. 

The closing canto is devoted to a wonder- 
fully vivid description of Albert Durer's ** Me- 
lencolia," here identified with the goddess whose 
bronze image presides over the city. 

The most noticeable of Thomson's latest 
poems are placed together at the beginning of 
the volume entitled A Voice from the Nile. 

F 



82 The Works of James Thomson ('' B, V'') 



Several of these are very good, especially 
Richard Forest's Midsummer Night, He 
heard her Sing, and Insomnia. The last- 
mentioned is in many ways akin to, The City 
of Dreadful Nighty but, if possible, is still more 
painful and harrowing. It narrates, with 
terrible vividness and all that sombre imagery 
of which Thomson was so great a master, the 
horrors of the sleepless night, every hour of 
which is as a deep ravine which must be crossed 
from ridge to ridge by the staggering, stumbl- 
ing, foot-sore sufferer. This poem was written 
in March 1882. Three months afterwards the 
poet died. 

To attempt to estimate Thomson's future 
place among English writers would be a hope- 
less and unprofitable task. That he was in the 
truest sense a great poet will not, I think, be 
denied by those who give his poems the atten- 
tion they deserve, and. who are not prejudiced 
against him at the outset, on account of his 
heterodox teaching and unpopular connections. 
Time is needed to remove these and similar 
obstacles, which at present bar the way to a 
right understanding and appreciation of his 
genius. The thanks of all those who have 
become acquainted with these wonderful poems 
are due to Thomson's friend and biographer, 
Mr. Dobell, by whose exertions the publication 
of the three volumes was fortunately secured, 



The Works of James Thomson ("B.V") 83 

1 • • •• • — — - - - 

and who will do yet another service to English 
literature if he can hereafter arrange for the 
production of a complete edition of Thomson s 
writings. 

As a prose writer Thomson is at present al- 
most unknown. Yet ample evidence of his 
power may be gathered from every page of the 
two volumes already published,^ and it is under- 
stood that there are also many uncollected articles 
of great merit. His style is admirably clear 
and forcible, at times reminding one strongly of 
De Quincey, as when he gives free play to his 
imaginative powers in A Lady of Sorrow, of 
which I have already spoken, The Fair of St. 
Sylvester^ In our Forest of the Past^ and other 
essays. Perhaps the best of all his prose writ- 
ings are the articles on Open Secret Societies^ 
and Indolence, which, though inspired by sincere 
feeling and conviction, are pervaded by a subtle 
and lambent humour which lend them a peculiar 
charm. In satire also Thomson could wield a 
keen and trenchant pen, as may readily be seen 
by a study of his inimitable essay on The 
Speedy Extinction of Evil and Misery^ a 
splendid piece of ironical writing, something in 
the style of Swift and of which even Swift him- 
self might have been proud. In the collection 
of articles reprinted after Thomson's death by 
the Progressive Publishing Company, under the 

Essays and Phantasies^ 1881. Satires and Frofanitics, 1884. 



84 The Works of James Thomson (^^ B. V^) 

title of Satires and Profanities^ there are 
many other instances of rare satirical power ; 
but the cause in which the satirist*s genius was 
enlisted is not one which would commend itself 
to the majority ol readers. Of Thomson's 
abilities as a literary critic we find several ex- 
amples in Essays and Phantasies^ especially 
his Evening with Spenser and Note on 
Forsters Life of Swift^ in the latter of which 
he severely censures Lord Macaulay for his 
exaggerated and distorted portrait of the famous 
Dean. **This is really very fine," he exclaims, 
** in the way of the dreadful, my rhetorical lord : 
but if we could only have, to hang beside it. 
Swift's portrait di you ! " Among contemporary 
prose writers Thomson had a profound admira- 
tion for Ruskin, George Eliot, and George 
Meredith ; while he regarded Browning as the 
greatest of living English poets. He speaks in 
depreciating terms of the Poet Laureate's 
*' hysterics and commonplace philosophy ; " and 
words can hardly express his contempt for 
Longfellow, the demi-god of popular mediocrity. 
"The sublime Excelsior 1 '' h^ says, "is very 
popular at present, but I doubt whether any 
man (soft curates, Sunday-school teachers, and 
tea-meeting muffs, who think beer and tobacco 
certain perdition, are of course not included) 
ever read the adventures of its lofty hero with- 
out ejaculating : The ineffable ass ! The in- 



The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V.'' ) 85 

fernal idiot ! What possible good could he do 
himself, or anybody else, by planting that 
banner with the very strange device on the top 
of that mountain ? Well, he perished, and I trust 
that the coroner's jury found a verdict of, Serve 
him right/' 

One cannot help being struck by the re- 
flection that the recognition of Thomson's 
literary genius was absurdly inadequate (in the 
case of his prose, perhaps, even more than his 
poetry) to the actual merits of the writings. 
The legend of the god Apollo doing menial service 
for the mortal Admetus in this instance received 
a fresh and signal illustration. For many years 
he contributed almost exclusively to the The 
National Reformer^ and when that engage- 
ment failed him the author of The City of Dread- 
fid Night thankfully accepted the chance of 
transferring his services to Copes Tobacco Plant, 
a periodical devoted to advertising the business 
of a well-known Liverpool firm. In some ways, 
however, this connection proved a very useful 
one to Thomson ; for as he could not, or would 
not, write to order, he was glad of a medium 
through which he could publish his writings 
without restraint. This he found in Copes 
Tobacco Plant, in which he accordingly published 
a number of reviews of new books, with essays 
on Rabelais, Ben Jonson, Walt Whitman, 
Baudelaire, Flaubert, and other authors. 



86 The Works of James Thomson (''B. Vr) 



When we come to sum up the leading points 
of Thomson s life and character, we are na- 
turally met by the consideration how far his 
morbid despondency, which we call pessimism, 
was due to his misfortunes, and how far to 
physical causes. Coleridge, in his ode on De- 
jection, to which, by-the-bye, many of Thomson's 
poems bear a strong resemblance, gives It as his 
opinion that outward forms and circumstances 
can in no way affect **the passion and the life 
whose fountains are within." Sydney Smith, 
too, has somewhere remarked, in his inimitably 
matter-of-fact fashion, that morbid melancholy 
is usually the result of a bad digestion, and may 
be best cured by a suitable dose of medicine. 
The disease In Thomson s case hardly admitted 
of so expeditious a remedy. It is the opinion of 
one of his biographers that Thomson Inherited 
a constitutional melancholia, and that his early 
bereavement was ** not the cause of his life-long 
misery, but merely the peg on which he hung 
his raiment of sorrow.'*^ Mr. Dobell, however, 
is Inclined to believe that '*no other affliction 
could have affected him as he was affected by 
this.*' One would probably be safe In conclud- 
ing that the truth lies somewhere between these 
two theories, and that Thomson's pessimistic 
bent of mind was brought about partly by an 

^ Vide Mr. Foote's Preface to Satires and Profanities* 



The Works of James Thomson ('' B. Vr) 87 



inherited disposition to melancholia, and partly 
by the crushing misfortune of his early life. 
It must not be supposed, however, that, pessi- 
mist as he was, he was accustomed to make a pro- 
fession and parade of his sufferings : on the con- 
trary, all accounts agree in representing him as a 
singularly cheerful companion, and one of the 
most brilliant of talkers. Neither did his pes- 
simism take a cynical and misanthropic turn, 
as in the case of Schopenhauer, who regarded, 
or affected to regard, his fellow-creatures and 
fellow-sufferers (synonymous terms, as he 
thought) with aversion and dislike. Thomson's 
disposition, on the other hand, was always 
benevolent and kindly, in which respect he 
resembles Shelley, for whom he again and again 
expresses the warmest feelings of reverence and 
admiration,^ and to whom, as ** the poet of poets 
and purest of men,*' Vanes Story, with its 
accompanying poems, is dedicated. But, un- 
fortunately, he could not share in the more 
hopeful side of Shelley's philosophy, his Pro- 
posals for the Speedy Extinction of Evil and 
Misery being a proof of his total lack of be- 
lief in the perfectibility of mankind and much 
else that Shelley held dear. The influence of 
Leopardi, to whom he appropriately dedicated 

^ Vide especially the splendid poem on Shelley^ by 
far the noblest of the many tributes offered to Shelley's 
memory by later writers. 



88 The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V:') 

The City of Dreadful Night, was a strong 
counter-attraction in the direction of pessimism, 
from which nothing would have been more 
likely to rescue him than his love for Shelley, 
who, in spite of his '*wail for the world's 
wrong," was anything rather than a pessimist. 
So while Shelley's philanthropy took the form 
of a life-protest against injustice and tyranny, 
Thomson's message of glad tidings to his fellow- 
sufferers is little more than a gospel of despair. 
Yet, after all, Thomson was well aware that 
in thus laying stress on the gloomy aspects of 
existence he was stating less the absolute fact 
than his own opinion, a half-view true as far as 
it went, yet by no means the complete truth. 
In the introductory note to A Lady of Sorrow 
he speaks of himself under the title of ** my 
friend Vane," and volunteers a criticism of his 
own pessimistic philosophy. '* That this com- 
position,'' he says, " is true in relation to the 
author that it is genuine, I have no doubt, for 
the poor fellow had large gifts for being un- 
happy. But is it true in relation to the world 
and general life } I think true, but not the 
whole truth. There is truth of winter and black 
night, there is truth of summer and dazzling 
noonday. On the one side of the great medal 
are stamped the glory and triumph of life, on 
the other side are stamped the glory and 
triumph of death ; but which is the obverse and 



The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V:') 89 



which the reverse none of us surely knows." 
One could hardly desire a better piece of in- 
sight and self-criticism than this. We may 
well regret that Thomson's genius was not of 
wide enough scope to depict both aspects of 
life ; but we cannot deny that he has painted 
** the glory and triumph of death " as it has 
seldom been painted before. There is a spirit- 
uality of tone pervading even his most despond- 
ing poems which at once lifts him from the 
class of ordinary materialists ; while, side by 
side with the scathing satire which he launched 
at the orthodox theology, there are many in- 
dications in his writings of deep tenderness and 
sympathy with true religious feeling.^ 

Thomson was a firm democrat and revolu- 
tionist, as may be seen from such poems 
as VAncien Regime ^ A Polish Insurgent, 
Garibaldi Revisiting; England, and Despo- 
tism tempered by Dynamite. His compassion 
for all victims of social injustice was also very 
keen, and finds expression in the verses on 
Low Life, and the essay entitled In Our 
Forest of the Past, He took a gloomy view, 
however, of most kinds of philanthropic enter- 
prises and endeavours to redress the wrongs of 
society, being of opinion that '*all proselytism 
is useless and absurd." He several times in- 

^ Tide the Sonnet on A Recusant^ and Open Secret 
Societies y pp. 200-203. 



90 The Works of James Thomson ('' B. V.'') 

veighs against the restlessness of the present 
age. '*In our time and country we have a 
plague of busy-bodyism, certainly more annoy- 
ing and perhaps more noxious than the plague 
of idleness. One comes across many earnest 
and energetic characters who are no longer men 
but simply machines for working out their 
* missions. " ^ How far this feeling of Thom- 
son s was due to his pessimistic creed, which, 
like fatalism, must tend to some extent to 
paralyse action, we need not pause to inquire, 
but it should in justice be noted that the ** in- 
dolence " of which he speaks with approbation 
in several of his essays is very far from mean- 
ing a culpable neglect of duty, but is simply an 
equivalent for that philosophic love of leisure 
the value of which is too apt to be forgotten in 
the excitement of a busy world. 

What, then, will be the final impression left 
on our minds by the study of James Thomson's 
character and writings ? That, I think, will 
depend mainly on the readers individual bias 
of thought, and will vary accordingly. Some 
will see the cause of Thomson's errors and 
misery in his agnostic philosophy, which cut 
him off from the hopes and consolation of re- 
ligious faith. Others will deplore the moral 
weakness which could allow a whole life to be 

^ Indolence — A Moral Essay, p. i6o. 



The Works of James Thomson (^' B. V.^') 91 

blighted on account of an early sorrow, and will 
point to cases where a similar affliction has not 
only been borne with resignation but has even 
stimulated heroic service in the cause of man- 
kind. Such criticism is natural and inevitable, 
yet it can scarcely be accepted as satisfactory 
or conclusive, for a character such as Thomson's 
is too complex and many-sided to be thus sum- 
marily estimated. That he erred grievously in 
the excesses of his later years is unfortunately 
undeniable ; yet it may be, that if we could 
realise the full history of his life, and the many 
difficulties under which he laboured, we should 
feel impelled to express pity rather than blame. 
For my part, I should find it impossible to re- 
gret that he followed to the last that line of 
thought which his own conscience told him was 
the true one, although it could not lead him to 
the hopes which his heart desired ; or that he 
faithfully cherished the memory of his early love, 
even at the cost of a life-long unhappiness. 
There are plenty of men in the world who have 
philosophy enough to enable them to forget 
such bereavements ; it is refreshing now and 
again to meet a man of a more passionate and 
constant temperament. Whatever his faults 
may have been, it seems that Thomson's 
character was one that endeared him to all his 
acquaintances ; all alike bear testimony to the 
gentleness and chivalry of his nature, and to the 



92 The Works of y antes Thomson ('' B, F."j 

extraordinary charm of his manner and con- 
versation. Very striking and very pathetic is 
the account of his personal appearance, as given 
by one who knew him. ^ *' He looked like a 
veteran scarred in the fierce affrays of life's war, 
and worn by the strain of forced marches. . . . 
You could see the shadow that 'tremendous 
fate ' had cast over that naturally buoyant 
nature. It had eaten great furrows into his 
broad brow, and cut tear-tracks downward, from 
his wistful eyes, so plaintive and brimful of un- 
speakable tenderness as they opened wide when 
in serious talk.'' Such was James Thomson, 
the author of The City of Dreadful Night, a 
poet who, in spite of his present obscurity, is 
perhaps destined some day to take a high place 
in English literature. He lies buried in a 
humble grave in High gate Cemeteiy ; and 
we may speak of him, in conclusion, in the 
words of his own Requiem : — 

Thou hast lived in pain and woe. 

Thou hast lived in grief and fear ; 
Now thine heart can dread no blow, 
Now thine eye can shed no tear : 
Storms round us shall beat and rave ; 
Thou art sheltered in the grave. 

1 Essay in Secular Review^ by Mr. Flaws. 



On Certain Lyric Poets, and their 

Critics. 

The poet and the critic have been at variance 
from time immemorial, yet I 'doubt if any 
modern poetical work has been subjected to so 
much mistaken criticism as the imaginative and 
impassioned style of poetry of which Shelley and 
Swinburne are perhaps the most notable repre- 
sentatives. It has at all times been a common 
complaint against such writers that they 
subordinate the true and natural to the unreal 
and mystical, and that their poetry is con- 
sequently of only secondary value. As a typical 
instance of this kind of criticism, I will quote 
the opinion of Sir Henry Taylor, as given in 
the Preface to Philip Van Artevelde. 

Speaking of Shelley and his followers, whom 
he calls the " Phantastic school," he says : 

'* Much beauty, exceeding splendour of diction and 
imagery, cannot but be perceived in his poetry, as well as 
exquisite charms of versification ; and a reader of an appre- 
hensive fancy will doubtless be entranced while he reads ; but 
when he shall have closed the volume, and considered within 
himself what it has added to his stock of permanent 



94 On certain Lyric Poets, and their Critics. 

impressions, of recurring thoughts, of pregnant recollections, 
he will probably find his stores in this kind no more enriched 
by having read Mr. Shelley's poems, than by having gazed on 
so many gorgeously-coloured clouds in an evening sky." 

Again, in another passage, he finds fault with 
the *' new poets," of whom Byron and Shelley 
were the chief, on the ground that they did not 
attempt to " thread the mazes of life in all its 
classes and under all its circumstances, common 
as well as romantic ; " and he comes to the con- 
clusion that such poetry, '* though it may be 
excellent of its kind, will not long be reputed to 
be poetry of the highest order. It may move 
the feelings and charm the fancy, but failing to 
satisfy the understanding it will not take 
permanent possession of the strongholds of 
fame." 

This criticism undoubtedly expresses the 
views of a large class of critics and readers. 
And in a certain limited sense it is an undisputed 
fact, that Shelley, like others of the ** new poets/' 
did not study life under all its circumstances, as 
Shakspere or Goethe studied it. But when Sir 
Henry Taylor, and those who think with him, 
proceed to assert that such j)oetry is therefore a 
failure, or at any rate worthy only of partial and 
limited approval, they are arriving at a most 
unjust and unwarrantable conclusion. For lyric 
poetry is valuable, not as a philosophic study of 
every phase and condition of life, but as an 



On certain Lyric Poets ^ and their Critics. 95 

■i ■ - 

expression of certain spiritual emotions which 
are none the less real because they are not 
universal. Poetry is a many-sided art ; and it 
is absurd to lay down a strict rule, and define 
that as the only poetry, or as the only noble 
poetry, which takes a purely dispassionate and 
philosophical view of life. All this must ever 
be a matter of individual opinion ; and therefore 
those who attempt to judge lyric poetry by the 
alien standard of practical utility or philosophic 
precision, must stand condemned of being 
naturally incapable of comprehending the very 
essence of the lyrical spirit. Their criticism 
may be perfectly true in its merely negative 
assertions, while all the time it entirely fails to 
understand the object and motive power of the 
poetry it assails, and furnishes us with another 
illustration of what Macaulay describes as **the 
irrational laws which bad critics have framed for 
the government of poets." 

In short, there is a natural deficiency in the 
minds of some critics, however acute they may 
be in other respects. In applying the ordinary 
rules of literary criticism to the ethereal subtleties 
of lyric poetry, they are engaged in a hopeless 
task of beating the air. They grasp the 
impalpable, and complain that it is light and 
unsubstantial ; they stare at the invisible, and 
pronounce it mystic and obscure ; they listen 
diligently for the inaudible, and are mightily 



96 On certain Lyric Poets, and their Critics. 



offended because they hear nothing. They 
accordingly pronounce certain styles of poetry to 
be unreal, shallow, meaningless ; and never for 
a moment suspect that they themselves are in 
fault, owing to their own inherent inability to 
appreciate certain delicate emotions. When a 
disciple of the common-sense school finds him- 
self, as Sir Henry Taylor says, in no way en- 
riched by reading Shelley's poems, we are 
inevitably reminded of Peter Bell and his very 
disparaging opinion as to the utility of wild- 
flowers : 

" A primrose by a river's brim 
A yellow primrose was to him, 
And it was nothing more." 

But, before we go farther, it may be well here 
to inquire what is this hidden charm in the spirit 
of lyrical poetry, so vague and unreal to some, 
yet so true and ever-present to others. We can 
scarcely hope to define it successfully, for it is 
well-nigh indefinable : we can only appeal to the 
intuitive perception of those who have felt it, 
and who can bear witness what a reality it has 
been to them. It is the charm of expressing by 
language something far more than what is con- 
veyed by the mere meaning or the mere sound ; 
the power of evoking an echo from the spiritual 
world, such as music can often give us, or the 
clash of distant bells. It is the miracle o 



On certain Lyric Poets, and their Critics. 97 

kindling by words that divine sympathy with 
the inarticulate voice of the elements, which we 
feel in the presence of the wind, the sea, the 
mountains. It is that communion with the 
spirit of nature of which Shelley writes, as none 
other could have written : 

" Fair are others ; none beholds thee ; 
But thy voice sounds low and tender 
Like the fairest, for it folds thee 

From the sight, that liquid splendour ; 
And all feel, yet see thee never, — 
As I feel now, lost for ever ! " 

Such sympathy is instinctive, heaven-sent, 
unattainable by human diligence or philosophic 
speculation ; those who feel it not will for ever 
fail to comprehend it, and those who have once 
felt it will value it above all mortal possessions. 
It is of such as these that Swinburne speaks : 

" For these have the toil and the guerdon ^ 
That the wind has eternally ; these 
Have part in the boon and the burden 

Of the sleepless unsatisfied breeze, 
That finds not, but seeking rejoices 

That possession can work him no wrong : 
And the voice at the heart of their voice is 

The sense of his song. 

For the wind's is their doom and their blessing 
To desire, and have always above 

A possession beyond their possessing, 
A love beyond reach of their love. 

1 By the North Sea. 
G 



98 On certain Lyric Poets, and their Critics. 

Green earth has her sons and her daughters, 

And these have their guerdons ; but we 
Are the wind's and the sun's and the water's, 

Elect of the sea." 

While speaking on this subject I could hardly 
have quoted from a more appropriate source 
than from the writings of the poet who, next to 
Shelley, has been endowed with the largest share 
of impassioned lyric inspiration ; and who has 
certainly been not less misconstrued and mis- 
understood than was his great predecessor. 
Critics are never weary of harping on the 
so-called aberrations and extravagances of Mr. 
Swinburne's genius ; but those who have an ear 
for the subtler harmonies of lyric poetry, know 
well that in all Mr. Swinburne's writings, 
in spite of obvious mannerisms, and minor 
blemishes, there is an intense reality of sublime 
spiritual feeling, which alone is sufficient to 
mark him as one of our greatest poets. If we 
compare his poems with those of his chief 
contemporaries, we shall find that although he 
may be inferior to them in many respects, and 
especially in those points on which our orthodox 
critics mostly insist, yet he has one poetical 
quality which is peculiarly and eminently his 
own. He does not possess Mr. Browning's 
great dramatic insight and wide scope of in- 
tellectual vision, nor Lord Tennyson's idyllic 
composure and exquisite felicity of expression ; 



On certain Lyric Poets^ and their Critics, 99 

but in place of these he has in an eminent 
degree a gift which they do not possess — the 
spirit of deep and passionate sympathy with all 
that is natural, elemental, primeval, and the 
power of expressing this spirit in words which 
themselves seem to be absolutely spontaneous 
and unpremeditated. 

It would not be difficult to multiply instances 
of this lyric faculty ; but it will be sufficient here 
to allude to two or three other most striking 
examples. It is to this same passionate inspir- 
ation that Mrs. Browning's poetry owes its 
unspeakable charm ; it is this same spirit that at 
times exalts the Bronte novels (for prose has its 
lyrics as well as poetry) to heights untouched 
by other English novelists. No deep learning, 
no wide experience, no patient observation, no 
mere artistic skill, could have availed to produce 
such poems as Lady Geraldines Courtships 
Cowpers Grave, Bianca among the Nightingales^ 
and a host of others which I need not here 
enumerate. The following lines, taken from 
Bianca among the Nightingales, will give a 
powerful instance of that divine afflatus with 
which all true lyric poetry is animated : 

"The cypress stood up like a church, 

That night we felt our love would hold, 

And saintly moonlight seemed to search 
And wash the whole world clean as gold ; 

The olives crystallised the vales, 



lOO On certain Lyric Poets ^ and their Critics. 

Broad slopes until the hills grew strong : 
The fireflies and the nightingales 
Throbbed each to either, flame and song. 

The nightingales, the nightingales. 

We paled with love, we shook with love, 

We kissed so close we could not vow ; 
Till Giulio whispered, * Sweet, above 

God's Ever guarantees this Now.' 
And through his words the nightingales 

Drove straight and full their long clear call. 
Like arrows through heroic mails, 

And love was awful in it all. 

The nightingales, the nightingales." 

Again, if the writings of Charlotte Bronte be 
compared with those of George Eliot, we shall 
see very clearly the marked contrast between 
the lyrical and philosophical spirit. There is 
probably more thoughtful judgment and mature 
wisdom in a single page of Middlemarch than 
in all the works of Charlotte Bronte ; yet we 
might look in vain through all George Eliot's 
writings for a passage such as the following, 
taken from the last pages of Villette : 

" The skies hang full and dark — a rack sails from the west ; 
the clouds cast themselves into strange forms — arches and 
broad radiations ; there rise resplendent mornings — glorious, 
royal, purple as monarch in his state ; the heavens are one 
flame ; so wild are they, they rival battle at its thickest — so 
bloody, they shame Victory in her pride. I know some signs 
of the sky ; I have noted them ever since childhood. God 
watch that sail ! Oh ! guard it ! 

" The wind shifts to the west. Peace, peace, * Banshee ' 






On certain Lyric Poets, and their Critics. loi 

— ^keening at every window ! It will rise — it will swell — it 
shrieks out long : wander as I may through the house this 
night, I cannot lull the blast. The advancing hours make it 
strong ; by midnight all sleepless watchers hear and fear a 
wild south-west storm." 

To appreciate at their true value such words 
as these, one has need of much more than a 
sound intellect and good poetical ** taste/* The 
lyric spirit is possessed, as it were, of a new 
sense ; and its independence of eye and ear may 
most aptly be illustrated by what naturalists tell 
us of the formation of a bat's wing, the nerves 
of which are of such fine and exquisite sensibility, 
as to enable it to avoid all objects in its nocturnal 
flight, though it receives no assistance from the 
sight or hearing. 

But here many persons will doubtless assert 
that this lyrical faculty, even if we grant its 
existence, is by no means so valuable a gift to a 
writer as that of calm philosophical observation 
and dispassionate judgment ; common sense, 
they say, must come first, and inspiration after- 
wards. I am not now concerned to disprove 
this assertion ; my present object has been 
merely to show that there exists in lyric poetry 
something beside and beyond the ordinary poetic 
qualities, and totally different in kind. It is 
therefore idle to attempt to bind down this spirit 
by any critical rules, or to assert that such 
poetry, because it does not satisfy some arbitrary 



I02 On certain Lyric Poets^ and their Critics. 

standard of criticism, is therefore inferior or 
valueless. Critics always perform a useful task 
when they point out literary defects, and so purge 
away the dross, more or less of which is to be 
found in every poetical work ; but they must not 
forget that a still higher and more important 
task is to discover the gold : the good and not 
the bad should be the main object of our search. 
It is certainly a serious error to overlook the 
faults of a poem which we admire ; but to fail to 
discern the excellencies of a poem we dislike is 
a far graver and more irreparable blunder. For 
this reason the sincerest admirers are on the 
whole the truest critics ; they alone can fully 
appreciate and sympathise with the spirit of the 
author. 

In speaking of this lyrical spirit as vague and 
impalpable, I have not meant to imply that it is 
necessarily purposeless and aimless. On the 
contrary, it has many times been enlisted in a 
noble cause ; seldom in any that is not noble. 
It is seen in its most glorious aspect when it is 
united with lofty and unselfish philanthropy, as 
in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, or with ardent 
love of liberty, as in Swinburne's Songs before 
Sunrise. But in many cases it is like the wind, 
that bloweth where it listeth : and a wise critic 
will then allow free scope to what he cannot 
control, and, if he himself cannot appreciate or 
understand, will at least recognise the fact that 



On certain Lyric Poets y and their Critics. 103 

others may be able to do so. At present it con- 
stantly happens that poems are ridiculed and 
disparaged for no better reason than that the 
critic has not the power of comprehending the 
subject on which he writes. Whenever I hear 
a critic harping on the ** weakness " of Shelley's 
style, or the '* poverty of thought " in Swinburne, 
or the various *^ fatal shortcomings " of other 
great poets, I am irresistibly tempted to draw 
his attention to that suggestive passage in Pick- 
wick in which Mr. Winkle criticises so severely 
the quality of his skates : 

" * These are very awkward skates ; ain*t they Sam ? ' in- 
quired Mr. Winkle, staggering. 

" Tm afeerd there's an orkard gen'Fman in 'em, sir,' replied 
Sam." 



Edgar Pods Writings. 

Although the interest excited by some of 
Edgar Poe*s poems, and by still more of his 
prose tales, may be taken as a sign that he has 
attained a certain kind of popularity, yet there 
are probably few writers who have been more 
strangely misjudged and misunderstood in 
English literary circles. Unfortunate in the 
circumstances of his life, he seems destined to be 
equally unlucky in his posthumous reputation, to 
which the homage of his less discriminating 
admirers has often been as injurious as the 
animadversions of hostile critics. It may 
sound paradoxical, yet it is none the less a fact, 
that he has been generally read and admired for 
what is least valuable in his writings, while he 
has been slighted or censured for what is most 
characteristic and original. The mere jingle of 
his alliterative verse, and the morbid sensation- 
alism of his tales — these are the points which 
have exercised a strong fascination on some 
readers who have no true taste for poetry or 



Edf^ar Poes Writings, 105 

fiction ; while on the other hand his adverse 
critics have been too quick to set him down as 
a mere rhymester and poetaster, not perceiving 
that they themselves are at fault in their inability 
to appreciate those mysteries of the poetic art, 
the subtle undertones and half-lights, in which 
Poe was so great a master. The fact is, we 
have been accustomed to hear at once too much 
of Poe and too little ; too much of some partic- 
ular writings and special incidents of his life 
which have been perseveringly forced on our 
notice till they lose all real significance by being 
isolated from the rest ; too little of the general 
tenor of his character and style. But now with 
the help of Mr. Woodberry's excellent Life of 
Poe in the ** American Men of Letters Series," 
and Mr. Ingram's English edition of his works, 
it is at least possible for every reader to arrive 
at a just estimate of Poe's genius. 

It is no part of my purpose to dwell on the 
vexed story of Poe's life, involved as it is in 
countless difficulties and contradictions. It is 
sufficient here to say that the stories so widely 
circulated by Poe's *' friend,'* Griswold, and so 
readily believed both in America and England, 
about the enormity of his misdemeanours and his 
orgies of intemperance, appear, on the best 
authority, to be always greatly exaggerated, and 
in many cases absolute fabrications. His life 
was throughout a sad one, and towards its close 



1 06 Edgar Poe's Writings. 

it was tenfold darkened and saddened by the use 
of stimulants ; yet he has at least the same 
excuse as that advanced by De Quincey, when 
seeking to palliate his own use of opium, that he 
erred through a desperate desire to find a tem- 
porary escape from the pangs of poverty and 
sickness. 

There are one or two events of Poe's life 
which call for special notice as having strongly 
influenced his writings in a particular direction. 
Of these the first is the death of Mrs. Helen 
Siannard, the mother of a young scoolfellow, 
and the friend and adviser of Poe in his boyish 
sorrows. It has been pointed out that the ex- 
treme grief which he felt at the death of this 
lady, a grief which drove him to haunt her grave 
nightly for months, may furnish an explanation 
of much that is otherwise unaccountably gloomy 
and terrible in the character of his works, and 
especially of the too frequent descriptions of 
churchyard scenes and premature burials. One 
cannot but call to mind those words of Keats, so 
eminently applicable to Poe : 

** Who hath not loiter*d in a green churchyard, 

And let his spirit, like a demon mole, 
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard, 

To see skull, coffin'd bones, and funeral stole ? " 

Poe had often loitered thus, and his mind was 
consequently tinged, even from boyhood, with a 



Edgar Poes Writings. 107 

sombre and funereal cast. But still more im- 
portant in their effects on his imagination were 
the lingering illness and death of his young wife, 
Virginia. The idea of the loss of a fair being, 
slowly dying of consumption in the bloom of 
youth and beauty, is one that strikes the key- 
note of many of his poems and tales, especially 
Annabel Lee and Eleonora ; while the fact that 
some of the tales referring to this subject were 
written before the death of his wife shows that 
there was already in Poe s mind an intuitive fore- 
knowledge of the calamity that was destined to 
befall him ; indeed, he expressly states in one of 
his letters ^ that for six years, during the recur- 
rences of his wife's illness, he felt all the agonies 
of her death. We see both in his poetry and 
his prose how constantly he hovers round this 
subject, the great central sorrow of his life and 
writings. 

Death being the power that chiefly influenced 
the early imagination of the young poet, it is 
not to be wondered that his style is often melan- 
choly and morbid. There is much that is sur- 
passingly beautiful in Poe's work, but there is 
also much that is distressing and unwholesome. 
The atmosphere of his writings is sickly and 
artificial, more so than that of either Coleridge 
or De Quincey, to whom in several respects he is 
somewhat akin. He has a certain grim humour 

^ Woodberry's "Li'b of Poe," p. 170. 



io8 Edgar Pees Writings. 

of his own, which lends a racy charm to many 
of the tales ; but on the whole the sadness of 
tone is largely predominant, the luxuriant splen- 
dour of his word-painting serving only to bring 
out more strongly the great central gloom. He 
possesses much intensity and concentration of 
power, but little freedom or width of scope in the 
choice and treatment of his subjects ; there is, 
accordingly, nothing to relieve the oppressive 
sense of disaster and despair which broods over 
most of his works. Yet, in spite of these in- 
herent failings, it would be a great mistake to 
conclude hastily, as some English critics have 
done, that Poes writings can be set aside 
as wholly faulty and unimportant. Many read- 
ers are doubtless unable to sympathise with a 
writer whose choice of subjects is so limited and 
whose methods are so peculiar ; yet to others it 
will appear that the narrowness of scope is com- 
pensated for by the minuteness and perfection of 
the workmanship. Nor can it be justly urged 
that the morbid tendency of Poe's writings is in 
itself a sufficient plea for their condemnation ; 
for if we were to admit that what is known as 
'* a healthy tone " is not only desirable but absol- 
utely essential to literary excellence, we should 
find ourselves compelled to reject also the 
masterpieces of Coleridge and De Quincey, 
whose writings show traces of the power of 
opium quite as clearly as do those of Poe. 



Edgar Poes Writings. 109 

In his essays on The Poetic Principle 2Xi^ The 
Philosophy 0/ Composition^ Poe has stated his 
own opinion on the question of poetry ; and it is 
interesting to read his account of the several 
stages in the conception and execution of his 
best known poem The Raven. The main 
principle he lays down is that a poem should be 
short, and that it should be so thought out and 
prearranged, before being actually written, as to 
produce on the mind of the reader a clear, 
sudden, and complete impression. The sole legi- 
timate province of a poem he declares to be 
Beauty, and the tone of the highest manifesta- 
tion of Beauty he finds to be Sadness ; finally 
he selects the Refrain as the most suitable 
vehicle for the expression of his poetical ideas. 
On this narrow and arbitrary principle Poe 
worked in the composition not only of his Raven^ 
but of nine-tenths of his other writings. It is 
not surprising that writing under such conditions 
he produced much that is of little value ; but 
none the less it is futile to deny the excellence 
of his best work. We may say of Poe, as it has 
been said of Coleridge, that ** all he did excell- 
ently might be bound up in twenty pages, but it 
should be bound in pure gold." In this class 
must be placed such poems as Lenore^ Annabel 
Lee, Ulalumey The Sleeper, The Raven^ and To 
One in Paradise, which are all inspired by the 
leading idea already mentioned, the untimely 



1 1 o Edgar Poes Writings. 

death of a beautiful and beloved woman. Add 
to this list a few other poems, on more general 
subjects such as Dreamland, For Annie, To 
Helen, The Haunted Palace, The Conqueror 
Worm^ and we can scarcely refuse to give Poe 
credit for high poetical genius. It is some- 
times asserted that these poems are little 
better than ** sense swooning into non^nse." 
That may be true, if we use the negative term 
in its literal and not opprobrious meaning ; but 
then it is equally true of Kubla Khan, and much 
of Coleridge's poetry, true also of some of 
Shelley*s writings and not a little of Swinburne's. 
The measure of success in poetry is ultimately 
the impression created on the mind of the reader, 
and this impression may be made by what is 
mysterious and indefinite, as well as by what is 
logical and well defined. It is beside the point 
to insist that such poems as Annabel Lee and 
Ulalume are filmy and impalpable ; their details 
are undoubtedly so, but the final and ultimate im- 
pression is not necessarily a feeble one, to those 
at any rate who have an ear for the subtle 
melodies of lyric poetry. In the case of Ulalume, 
for example, the poem which is most often sel- 
ected for adverse criticism, the general meaning 
is surely not quite so obscure as the critics ap- 
pear to find it. The subject is the same as that of 
which Wordsworth has treated in one of his finest 
sonnets, the sudden recollection of a heavy 



Edgar Poe^s Writings. 1 1 1 

calamity, the anniversary of a death, which had 
been for the moment forgotten. The Psyche of 
Poe*s Ulalume is the same as the ** faithful love " 
of Wordsworth's sonnet, the trusty monitor who 
first recalls what the mind of the bereaved poet 
had otherwise overlooked. 

** Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind — 
But how could I forget thee ? Through what power, 
Even for the least division of an hour, 
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind 
To my most grievous loss ? " 

If this leading idea be kept in view, I do not 
think the readers of Ulalume need be reduced to 
regarding it as mere sound without sense, though 
it may be admitted that its details baffle critical 
explanation, and that the use of the Refrain is 
here carried to its extreme limits. Foe must 
indeed be considered the poet of the Refrain, for 
who has ever used it so persistently yet so 
successfully as he ? Four of his chief poems. 
The Raven, The Bells, Annabel Lee, and Ula- 
lume, owe their effect directly to this metrical 
arrangement ; while in many others the ear of 
the reader is charmed from time to time by a 
rhythmical recurrence of sound, which seems to 
breathe an echo from some spiritual world. To 
those who are gifted with the power of appre- 
ciating it, this mystic tone is the most valuable 
quality possessed by Poe as a writer ; though 



1 1 2 Edgar Poes Writings. 

there have always been, and will always continue 
to be, critics who, for this very reason, take him 
to task for his lack of distinctness and coherence. 
Turning now to Poe s prose tales, we find 
his own opinion on this form of composition 
very clearly stated in his essay on Nathaniel 
Haw^thorne. He strongly urges that a tale, 
like a poem, should be brief, ** requiring from 
half an hour to one or two hours in its perusal." 
The author is thus able, and thus only, to create 
a concise and lasting effect ; for ** during the 
hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the 
writer's control ; there are no external or 
extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or 
interruption." This brevity is the quality that 
Poe admired in Hawthorne's Twice-told Tales ; 
and on this principle most of his own prose- 
writing was based, though there is certainly an 
exception — and, in the opinion of most readers, 
rather an unfortunate one — in the case of his 
rather long and wearisome story, Arthur Gordon 
Pym. In prose, as in poetry, the most import- 
ant element in the composition of Poe's works 
was mystery. A large portion of his most 
remarkable tales are essentially mysterious, many 
of them tinged with the same love of death- 
scenes and funereal shadows which is so marked 
a characteristic of his poems. He must surely 
have been thinking of himself when he penned 
the following passage in The Murders in the 



Edgar Poes Writings. 113 

Rue Morgue ; at any rate, one could not desire 
a more accurate description of his genius. ** It 
was a freak of fancy in my friend (for what else 
shall I call it ?) to be enamoured of the Night for 
her own sake. At the first dawn of the morning 
we closed all the massive shutters of our old 
building, lighting a couple of tapers, which, 
strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest 
and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we 
then busied our souls in dreams, reading, writing, 
or conversing, until warned by the clock of the 
advent of the true darkness," All who have 
read Ligeia^ or The Fall of the House of Usher ^ 
or The Masque of the Red Death, will remem- 
ber those weird effects of lurid word-painting, 
the pentagonal chambers ; the vaulted and 
fretted ceilings, with their elaborate carving ; 
the blackness of oaken floors ; the armorial 
trophies hung on the lofty walls ; the vast folds 
of the massive velvet tapestry ; the long narrow- 
pointed windows, with trellised and tinted panes, 
through which fall mysterious gleams of en- 
crimsoned light ; the huge censer ; the ottomans ; 
the golden candelabra ; the gigantic ebony 
clocks ; and all the rest of the ghostly nocturnal 
paraphernalia with which Poe loved to bedeck 
his stories. In this unnatural and, it must be 
added, unwholesome atmosphere, amid this 
strange scenery and grotesque imagery, is laid 
the plot of many a wild and startling tale, among 



1 14 Edgar Poes Writings, 

which no subjects are commoner than those of 
premature burial and sentience after death. Of 
all such stories the best is probably Ihe Fall of 
the House of Usher^ in which the absorbing 
interest is skilfully maintained from beginning 
to end, while each phase of the tragedy serves 
in its turn to lend additional weight to the final 
impression. With breathless attention and 
increasing awe, we follow the fortunes of the 
ill-fated house, as narrated by the friend who 
has been summoned to cheer his old school- 
fellow, Roderick Usher, in his morbid and 
unhappy isolation. We feel from the first the 
foreboding of intolerable gloom ; from the 
journey through the dreary tract, where the 
clouds hung low in the sky, to the arrival at the 
melancholy mansion, surrounded by its dark, 
peculiar atmosphere, and the meeting with 
Usher himself, a prey to constitutional malady 
and superstition. Very powerful, too, are the 
descriptions of Ushers solitary studies, his 
strange improvised dirges, and mysterious 
pictures " bathed in a ghastly and inappropriate 
splendour;" and, above all, the references to the 
Lady Madeline. The manner in which the 
interest of the tale is made to centre on Usher's 
ill-fated sister, without her actual introduction 
on the scene ; the account of her burial in the 
vault, and the storm that afterwards shook the 
casements of the house — all this is marvellously 



Edgar Poe's Writings. 115 

contrived to suggest and enhance the final 
catastrophe, and may challenge comparison with 
the best work of the great masters of mystery 
and horror, from Webster to Hawthorne. Next 
to The Fall of the House of Usher should be 
placed William Wilson, a piece of allegorical 
autobiography which in conception and style 
bears a singular resemblance to some of 
Hawthorne's writings. Its subject is the 
struggle between the Will and the Conscience, 
terminating in the death of the latter, and the 
consequent degradation of the former. The 
story is told in Poe's most effective manner, 
and there is a strange charm and fascination in 
his account of the mysterious stranger, his alter 
ego, his second self, who, bearing the same name 
and resembling him in voice and feature, dogs 
his steps and thwarts his plans from childhood 
to manhood, until, in a fit of fury, he strikes his 
persecutor dead, only to find that he has de- 
stroyed all that was most dear to him in himself. 
Perhaps the best-known of all Poe's tales is 
The Murders in the Rue Morgue^ which, together 
with The Mystery of Marie RogH, was the out- 
come of his natural liking for the enigmatical 
and his extraordinary acuteness in unravelling 
the secrets of the human mind It is Poe's 
misfortune, or perhaps we shouM say his 
punishment, that the morbidly sensational 
element of his stories should have proved to be 



1 1 6 Edgar Poes Writings. 

their chief attraction for posterity ; but even 
those readers who have little relish for anything 
that savours of the " Newgate Calendar/* must 
admire the wonderful analytic power by which 
the plot of these stories is step by step disclosed, 
and the literary genius which lends a charm to 
what would otherwise be merely hideous and 
repulsive. In this respect The Murders in the 
Rue Morgue and The Mystery of Marie Roget 
are scarcely surpassed in English literature, 
except by De Quincey's Postcript to his essay 
on Murder^ which stands unique and inimitable 
among all histories of crime. Under the same 
heading of mysterious tales must be classed 
Ligeia, — which Poe himself, not without some 
reason, regarded as his masterpiece — Morella^ 
The Masque of the Red Death ^ and several other 
stories, including those where the influence of 
Dickens is observable, as in The Pit and the 
Pendulum and the Tell-tale Heart, some of the 
passages of which might easily pass for the 
handiwork of the author of Bamaby Rudge and 
the Madman s Story, 

It is a relief to turn from works of this kind 
to the tender and pathetic Eleonora^ the 
loveliest and most beautiful of all Poe*s prose 
writings, perfect both in the purity of its con- 
ception and the delicacy of its workmanship. 
Its subject is almost the same as that of 
Annabel Lee^ of which it is, in fact, a prose 



Edgar Pois Writings. 1 1 7 

counterpart, describing, though in a some- 
what more allegorical form, the calmest and 
happiest portion of Poe's life, until the loss of 
his child- wife, Virginia. It is a rhapsody of 
melodious sound, inspired by purest feeling, and 
makes us regret that Poe did not write more in 
the same style. 

The second class of Poe's tales may be 
called the scientific, or, more correctly, the 
pseudo-scientific. The leading characteristic of 
these is the manner in which he handles some 
scientific data^ making them the groundwork of 
his fabric, on which he so skilfully builds up a 
fiction that it is difficult to determine the exact 
point at which fact ends and fancy begins. Of 
these stories by far the best is The Descent into 
the Maelstrom^ in every way one of his most effec- 
tive tales, based on the scientific deduction that 
a cylindrical body, revolving in a whirlpool, 
must offer more resistance to the suction of the 
water than other bodies of equal bulk. On 
this basis he founds his story of a sailor's safe 
descent into the great Norwegian whirlpool by 
means of clinging to a cylindrical water-cask ; 
and preposterous as the idea seems, when thus 
baldly stated, such is the power of literary 
genius that in Poe's story it seem scarcely im- 
probable or grotesque. In the same category, 
though greatly inferior in power, must be placed 
Tfie Adventure of Hans Pfaal, and the other 



1 1 8 Edgar Poes Writings. 

ballooning stories ; also those that deal with the 
subjects of alchemy, mesmerism, and crypto- 
graphy. The Gold Bug for instance, is one of 
Poe*s best tales, and exhibits his extraordinary 
ingenuity in constructing and solving enigma- 
tical ciphers, a mental quality doubtless closely 
akin to the power he possessed of unravelling 
criminal secrets. In The Gold-Bug as well as in 
his essay on cryptography, he asserts that 
** human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which 
human ingenuity cannot resolve." The stories 
that treat of mesmeric phenomena are the most 
terrible that Poe wrote, and I think that even 
his warmest admirers must admit that he was 
guilty of unpardonable bad taste in such tales 
as The Facts in the Case of M, Valdemary and 
Mesmeric Revelation, Some Words with a 
Mummy is less objectionable, on account of the 
humorous spirit that pervades it, and relieves it 
of the sense of horror that makes the two other 
stories well-nigh intolerable. 

This mention of Foe's humour brings us to the 
third class of his writing, the humorous. These, 
though inconsiderable in number, are so excel- 
lent in quality that it is odd they should be so 
little known among the many readers who, in 
their search for amusing literature, are fain to 
content themselves with far less salientj wit. 
The Devil m the Belfry is a masterpiece of 
good-humoured satire on the ludicrous sSde of 



\ 



Edgar Poes Writings. 119 

Dutch life. Nothing could be better than the 
description of the borough of Vondervotteimittis, 
with its tiny red-brick houses and prim in- 
habitants, who have little else to do but attend 
to their clocks and cabbages, until they, suffer 
an overwhelming calamity in the mysterious 
derangement of their belfry and striking of 
** dirteen o'clock." Scarcely less admirable in 
their keen humour are ** The System of Dr, Tarr 
and Professor Fether^ How to Write a Black- 
wood Article, Never Bet the Devil your Heady 
and Hop-Fro^, which, however, has also a strong 
admixture of the mysterious and horrible. 

In addition to his poems and prose-tales, Poe 
left a considerable number of miscellaneous 
essays and criticisms. In his essays on The 
Philosophy of Composition^ 7 he Poetic Principle, 
and The Rationale of Verse, his views on poetry 
and the laws of metre are fully set forth. Of 
the numerous critiques on contemporary authors, 
chiefly American, the most noteworthy are those 
on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and 
Mrs. Browning. Poe had a high admiration of 
Mrs. Brownings genius, and in the essay in 
question awards her no stinted praise ; yet 
there is also much temperate criticism of certain 
mannerisms and blemishes which so exact and 
methodical a writer as Poe could not fail to re- 
sent. We are not surprised to find from several 
passages in his works that he considered 



1 20 Edgar Poes Writings. 



Tennyson the greatest of all poets ; for Poe was 
himself essentially an artist, and artistic finish and 
perfection were the foremost qualities, accord- 
ing to his judgment, in poetic composition. 
The essay on Dickens is chiefly taken up with 
an analysis of Barnaby Rttdge — a novel es- 
pecially interesting to Poe, and closely akin to 
his own writings both in subject and style, as 
may be seen by the introduction of that **grim, 
ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird," 
the raven, and other points of similarity. It is 
said that after the publication of the earlier 
chapters of Barnaby Rudge Poe wrote a ** pro- 
spective notice " of the story, in which the 
events that were to come were foretold with ex- 
traordinary precision. Almost the last literary 
work on which Poe was occupied was Eureka, 
at once the most ambitious and the most inex- 
plicable of his productions. In the pathetic 
dedication " to the few who love me and whom 
I love,*' he expressly states that he wishes this 
''book of truths,'* to be regarded as a poem 
rather than a scientific treatise ; yet it may 
fairly be doubted if an attempt to '* take a 
survey of the universe " offers a very suitable 
field for poetic enterprise. 

I have already remarked that Poe's works 
present some points of similarity to Haw- 
thorne's. There are, in fact, several of Poe's 
stories which one could almost believe to have 



Edgar Poe's Writings. 1 2 1 

been written by Hawthorne, while it would not 
be difficult to make selections from Twice-told 
Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse, which 
might well pass as the writings of Poe. It can 
hardly be questioned that Hawthorne was the 
greater genius ; for he is distinctly superior to 
Poe, both in the scope of his imaginative power 
and in delicacy of sentiment. This may per- 
haps be partly accounted for by the fact that 
while Hawthorne led a life of unbroken leisure 
and opportunity for quiet contemplation, Poe 
was seldom free from pressing embarrassments 
and domestic anxiety ; the former wrote for the 
actual pleasure of writing and to gratify his 
literary taste, while the latter was chiefly con- 
cerned in staving off poverty and imminent 
want. It is not surprising therefore, that Poe 
should have been less scrupulous in his choice 
and treatment of subjects for his pen, and that 
he should more often have violated the laws of 
literary taste. In spite of his strong predilection 
for the mysterious, he did not possess the art 
of enshrouding his characters in that filmy and 
half-spiritual phantasy which lends so great a 
charm to Hawthorne's romances ; on the con- 
trary, his stories, being more sensational than 
those of Hawthorne, tend rather to degenerate 
into the horrible and grotesque. The same 
difference is observable in their humorous writ- 
ings ; Poe's humour being keen, pungent, and 



12 2 Edgar Poe^s Writings. 

sharply defined, while Hawthorne s is shy, 
delicate, and unobtrusive. Nevertheless, in- 
ferior though he is in these points, Poe is no 
unworthy rival of his gifted contemporary and 
fellow-countryman, with whom he may share the 
merit of having developed and perfected the 
short prose story in a way few English writers 
have done. 

To those who intelligently and sympatheti- 
cally study any or all of Poe's writings one thing 
must, I think, become abundantly evident : that 
they are reading the works of a man of real 
genius. Whatever his defects and peculiarities 
may be — and they are certainly nnmerous 
enough — it can hardly be denied that he 
possesses the rare faculty, which no accomplish- 
ments can teach and no diligence can acquire, 
of giving life and reality to the scenes and 
characters he depicts. It must be confessed it 
is a strange, uncanny, twilight world to which 
he introduces us ; a region filled with an op- 
pressive sense of death and decay : 

" The air is damp, and hushed, and close 
As a sick man's room when he taketh repose 
An hour before death." 

Yet though we are everywhere haunted, in 
the poems and prose stories alike, by this morbid 
and autumnal atmosphere, which chills the heart 
and fills it with a presage of wintry desolation, 



Edgar Poes Writings. 123 

we cannot refuse our tribute of praise to the 
author of so vivid an impression. The spirit 
of Poe*s genius was narrow, concentrated, in- 
tense ; his success is largely due to the power 
with which he harped on a few particular 
themes, and to the fantastic beauty of the weird 
imagery in which he clothed his ideas. His 
place in literature is, in fact, unique ; both in 
the matter of his writings and in his methods of 
expression he stands alone. It would be 
affectation to claim for him a position in the 
foremost rank ; but though he cannot be classed 
among the greatest, he cannot fairly be excluded 
from the company of the great. He has the 
merit of doing whatever he attempts to do with 
exquisite harmony and conciseness ; and it is 
this perfection of workmanship, aided by the 
subtle and suggestive melody of his language, 
that constitutes his chief claim to immortality. 



Henry D. Thoreau. 

" Mr. Thoreau dined with us. He is a singular character 
— a young man with much of wild, original nature still 
remaining in him ; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in 
a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long- 
nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat 
rustic, though courteous, manners, corresponding very well 
with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and 
agreeable fashion and becomes him much better than 
beauty." 

This extract from Nathaniel Hawthorne's 
Diary in 1842 describes Thoreau as he appeared, 
three years before his retirement to Walden, to 
one who was scarcely likely to do full justice to 
a genius so widely dissimilar to his own. ' The 
gifted inhabitant of the Old Manse, whose 
recent experiences at Brook Farm had led him 
to look with suspicion on all that savoured of 
enthusiasm for social reform, and to view 
everything from a purely literary and artistic 
standpoint, could scarcely be expected to ap- 
preciate very warmly the character of a young 
enthusiast who had declared open war against 



Henry D. Thoreau. 125 

custom and society and was preaching a crusade 
against every sort of luxury and self-indulgence. 
Still less could the ordinary American citizen 
understand that novel gospel which bid him 
dispense with most of those things which he 
had been brought up to regard as the necessary 
comforts of life. Accordingly we are not 
surprised to find that Thoreau s doctrines 
obtained but little recognition during his life- 
time ; he was regarded with profound respect 
by a few select friends, Emerson among the 
number ; but to the many he appeared merely 
eccentric and quixotic, his sojourn at Walden 
gaining him the reputation of a hermit and mis- 
anthrope. Even now, a quarter of a century 
after his death, he is not known as he deserves 
to be either in America or this country ; most 
readers ignore or misunderstand him ; and it is 
left to a small but increasing number of 
admirers to do justice to one of the most re- 
markable and original characters that America 
has yet produced. Thoreau was pre-eminently 
the apostle of " plain living and high thinking ; " 
and to those who are indifferent to this doctrine 
he must ever appeal in vain : on the other hand, 
those who have realized the blessings of a simple 
and heathful life can never feel sufficient 
gratitude or admiration for such a book as 
Walden, which is rightly regarded as the 
masterpiece of Thoreau s genius. 



126 Henry D. Thoreau. 

One of the causes that have contributed to 
the general lack of interest in Thoreau's writ- 
ings is the want of a good memoir of his life. 
Emerson s account of him* is excellent as far as 
it goes, but it is very short and cursory ; while 
the other lives,f though each is not without 
some merit of its own, are hardly satisfactory 
enough to become really popular. As so little 
is known of Thoreau by most people, it may be 
well, before I proceed to an examination of his 
writings and philosophy, to enumerate very 
briefly the leading facts of his life. He was 
born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, his 
father being a manufacturer of lead pencils in 
that place. He was educated at Harvard 
College, and after leaving the University taught 
for a short time in a private school, but soon 
becoming weary of the educational profession 
he devoted himself to his father s trade till he 
had completely mastered it in all its details. 
Then, finding that the true aim and object of 
his ambition was to live a simple, natural, open- 
air life, he became, as he himself has humorously 
recorded, '* self-appointed inspector of snow- 

* Prefxed to Thoreau's Excursions, Messrs. Ticknor 
and Fields : Boston. 

t Thoreau^ His Life and Aims^ by H. A. Page. Chatto 
and Windus. Thoreau^ The Poet-Naturalist^ by W. Ellery 
Channing. Boston. Life of Thoreau (in American Men of 
Letters Series), by F. B. Sanborn. 



Henry D. Thoreau, 127 

storms and rain-storms/' and gave himself up to 
that intimate communion with nature from which 
he seemed to derive all his intellectual strength. 
In 1845 ^^ built himself a hut on the shores of 
Walden Pond, a short distance from Concord, 
and there lived for over two years. After this 
sojourn in the woods he returned to Concord, 
and the quiet tenor of his life was afterwards 
only interrupted by occasional visits to the 
Maine Woods, Canada, Cape Cod, and other 
places of interest, of which journeys he has 
left an account in his books. He died in 1862 / 
from a disease of the lungs, the result of a severe 
cold taken through unwise exposure in winter. 

It has been remarked by some critics, who 
take an unfavourable view of Thoreau's philo- 
sophy, that his life was strikingly devoid of 
those wide experiences and opportunities of 
studying mankind, which alone can justify an 
individual in arraigning, as Thoreau did, the 
whole system of modern society.*^ It should be' 
remembered, however, that he possessed that 
keen native wisdom and practical insight, which, 
combined with fearless self-inspection, are often 
a better form of education than the most ap- 
proved methods. Like all other enthusiasts, 
Thoreau sometimes taught a half-truth rather 
than a whole one ; but that does not alter the 

* Tide LowelFs Essay on Thoreau, in My Study Windows. 



128 Henry D. Thoreau. 

fact that his teaching was true as far as it went. 
In his life-protest against the luxury and self- 
indulgence which he saw everywhere around 
him, he no doubt occasionally over-stated his 
own case, and ignored some objections which 
might reasonably have been raised against his 
doctrines ; but in the main his conclusions are 
generally sound and unimpeachable. Self- 
taught, time-saving, and laconic, he struck by a 
sort of unerring instinct at the very root of the 
question which he chanced to be discussing, not 
pausing to weigh objections, or allowing any 
difficulties to divert him from his aim. We 
may now proceed to consider the chief features 
of his philosophy. 

As regards religious views, we find that 
Thoreau unhesitatingly rejected all theological 
dogmatism, being convinced of the hollowness 
of all traditionary belief ; "no way of thinking 
or doing," he says, " however ancient, can be 
trusted without proof." In a remarkable 
passage in the Week he expressly states his 
disbelief in the doctrines of Christianity, for 
which, in all his wanderings, he '* never came 
across the least vestige of authority." But it 
must not be supposed from this that Thoreau 
was deficient in reverence and the true religious 
spirit ; on the contrary, he was, in the highest 
and truest sense, a proloundly religious man. 
"If any one doubts this, let him read Thoreau's 



Henry D. Thoreau, 129 

account of his visit to the cathedral of Notre 
Dame at Montreal,* and his emotion on passing 
from the noisy mob and rattling carriages into 
the quiet religious atmosphere of this "great 
cave in the midst of a city," this church "where 
the priest is the least part, where you do your 
own preaching, where the universe preaches to 
you and can be heard." Equally profound was 
Thoreau's reverence for the old primeval phil- 
osophies and religions. Confucius and Buddha 
were not mere names to him ; he was never 
weary of reading and quoting the " Bhagvat 
Geeta,"the "Vishnu Purana," "Sarma," "Saadi," 
and similar books. The new Testament he 
pronounces *' an invaluable book," which had 
the greater charm for him because he began to 
study it later than the rest, having at first been 
prejudiced against it by the infliction of Sabbath- 
school teaching ; he used to read it again and 
again, and naively remarks that he should have 
loved dearly to read it aloud to his friends, had 
they not shown evident signs of weariness under 
the ordeal. From this, and many other passages 
in his works, it appears that Thoreau was far 
from holding any materialistic or anti-religious 
ways of thought ; he had unbounded belief in 
the perfectibility of man, and the resurrection of 
a new and beautiful life. " Poet- Naturalist " as 



« a 



A Yankee in Canada," p. 12. 

X 



X 



1 30 Henry D. Thoreau. 

he was, he drew deep lessons from his obser- 
vation of the power and kindliness of nature. 

"As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine 
needles on the forest floor, and endeavouring to conceal it- 
self from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those 
humble thoughts, and hide its head from me who might, 
perhaps, be its benefactor, and impart to its race some cheer- 
ing information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor 
and Intelligence that stands over me, the human insect." 

But he declines to take man's word on subjects 
that are beyond man's intelligence; he will allow 
no schemes and formulas to obstruct his view 
of the sky ; he will see *' no rafter, not even a 
cobweb, against the heavens/' A religious man 
Thoreau certainly was, but not in the sectarian 
sense of " religious.*' '* There is more religion," 
he says, ** in men's science than there is science 
in their religion." 

Thoreau has been called a Stoic ; and there 
is undoubtedly much in his philosophy that is 
akin to the spirit of ancient Stoicism. With 
him, as with Epictetus, conformity to nature is 
the basis of his teaching, and he has been finely 
called by Emerson the " Bachelor of Nature," 
a term which might well have been applied to 
many of the old Greek and Roman Stoics. It 
is a remarkable fact that there is rarely any 
mention of love in his writings, but friendship, 
as with the Stoics, is a common theme, this 
subject being treated of at considerable length 



Henry D. Thoreau. 131 

in the WeekJ^ His main point of similarity, 
however, to the Stoic philosophers is to be found 
in his ceaseless protest against all kinds of luxury 
and superfluous comforts. Like Socrates, he 
could truly say, on seeing the abundance of 
other people's possessions, " How many things 
are there that I do not desire ! " and every page 
of Walden bears testimony to the sincerity of 
this feeling. The keynote of the book is the 
sentiment expressed in Goldsmith's words, " Man 
wants but little here below," with the difference 
that Thoreau did not merely talk of Arcadian 
simplicity, in the manner that was so common 
with literary men a century ago, but carried his 
theories into practical effect. His furniture at 
Walden consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three 
chairs, a looking-glass, a pair of tongs, and a few 
plates, knives, forks, and cooking-utensils. He 
had three pieces of limestone on his desk, but 
finding they required to be dusted daily, he threw 
them out of the window, preferring to spend the 
time in dusting "the furniture of his mind." A 
lady once offered him a mat, but for the same 
reason this offer was declined. His dress, diet, 
and whole system of life were framed on similar 

* It is stated in the Preface to Mr. Stevenson's essay on 
Thoreau (Familiar Studies of Men and Books) on the 
authority of Dr. Japp, that Thoreau had been disappointed 
in love, and that the discourse on friendship was in reality 
an " anodyne to lull his pains." 



132 Henry D. Thoreau. 

principles. When asked at table what dish he 
preferred, he answered " the nearest," and he 
was surprised at the anxiety which people 
usually manifest to have new and unpatched 
clothes rather than a sound conscience. I n short, 
his utterances on this subject of superfluous com- 
forts were such as would have made Dr. Samuel 
Johnson's hair stand on end with amazement 
and indignation had they been promulgated on 
one of the many occasions when the Doctor 
used to demonstrate to his audience the bene- 
ficial results of luxury, in the full confidence that 
he was teaching a great economic truth ! Free- 
dom from artificial wants, and a life in harmony 
with nature, are again and again insisted upon 
by Thoreau as the basis of all true happiness ; 
and these he certainly pursued with unfaltering 
consistency through his own singular career. 
In this sense he was a true Stoic philosopher. 
But there arealso important differences. Thoreau 
was free from that coldness of heart which was 
too often a characteristic of the Stoics of old, 
and was animated by a far wider and nobler 
spirit of humanity. It is true that there was a 
certain reserve in his manner which made his 
acquaintances a little afraid of him, and caused 
one of his friends to remark, *' I lave Henry, but 
I cannot like him." But this existed only in his 
manner ; in heart he was at all times thoroughly 
kindly and sympathetic. There is a passage in 



Henry D. Tkoreau, 133 



his diary* where he regrets his own tendency 
to use more harsh and cynical expressions about 
mankind than he really intended, owing to the 
somewhat paradoxical style of conversation in 
which he indulged, and which his friends seemed 
to expect from him. But his enthusiastic ad- 
miration for the heroes of the anti-slavery 
agitation was a proof that he was quite free from 
the coldness of a merely theoretic Stoicism ; 
indeed he has a just claim to be considered one 
of the leaders of the great humanitarian move- 
ment of this century, his sympathy with the 
lower animals being one of the most extra- 
ordinary features of his character. He had been 
influenced far too deeply by the teaching of 
Channing, Emerson, and the transcendental 
school, to permit of his being classed as a mere 
cynic or misanthrope. 

** Simplify, simplify," was the cry that was for 
ever on Thoreau's lips, in his life-protest against 
the increasing luxury and extravagance and 
hypocrisy of the age. The lesson taught us by 
Walden is that there are two ways of becoming 
rich ; one — the method usually adopted — by 
conforming to the conventional laws of society, 
and amassing sufficient money to enable one to 
purchase all the *' comforts '* of which men think 
they have need ; the other — a simpler and more 

* Early Spring in Massachusetts, p. 214, 



r 



1 34 Henry D. Tkoreau. 

expeditious process — by limiting one's desires 
to those things which are really necessary ; in 
Thoreau s own words, ** A man is rich in pro- 
portion to the number of things which he can 
afford to let alone." It is habit only which 
makes us regard as necessary a great part of 
the equipment of civilized life, and an experience 
such as that of Thoreau during his sojourn at 
Walden goes to prove that we might be healthier 
and happier if we could bring ourselves to dis- 
pense with many of our superfluous and artificial 
wants, and thus substitute a manly independence 
for our present childish dependence on the 
labour of others. Thoreau was not a foolish 
champion of savage and barbarous isolation 
against the appliances and improvements of 
civilized society ; it is not denied by him that 
on the whole the civilized state is far preferable 
to the savage condition ; but he shows that in 
some ways the increase of artificial wants, and 
of skill in supplying them, has proved a curse 
rather than a blessing to the human race, and 
he points out an easy and perfectly practicable 
way out of this difficulty. Every one may add 
to his own riches, and may lessen his own labour, 
and that of others, in the treadmill of competitive 
existence, by the simple expedient of living less 
artificially. There are few indeed who, if they 
go to the root of the matter, and cast aside the 
prejudices of custom and convention, will not 



Henry D. Thoreau. 135 



discover that they could be equally happy — nay, 
far happier, without much of what is now most 
expensive in their houses, in the way of furni- 
ture, clothing, and diet. Thoreau discovered 
by his own experiment,* that by working about 
six weeks in the year, he could meet all the 
expenses of living, and have free for study the 
whole of his winters as well as most of his 
summers, a discovery which may throw con- 
siderable light on the solution of certain social 
problems in our own country. Even if we allow 
an ample margin for the peculiarity of his case, 
and the favourable conditions under which he 
made his experiment, the conclusion seems to be 
unavoidable that the burden of labour which falls 
on the majority of the human race is not only 
very unfairly distributed, but in itself un- 
necessarily heavy. 

Thoreau cannot be called a Socialist ; he was 
rather an Individualist of the most uncom- 
promising type. One of his most striking 
characteristics was his strong contempt for the 
orthodox social virtues of ** charity " and ** phil- 
anthropy," which lead men — so he thought — to 
attempt a cheap method of improving their 
fellow-creatures without any real sacrifice or 
reform on their own side. In no part of Walden 
is the writing more vigorous and trenchant than 
when Thoreau is discussing the '* philanthropic 

* Walden^ pp. 75-77. 



136 Henry D. Tkoreati. 

enterprises " in which some of his fellow-towns- 
men reproachfully invited him to join. " Doing 
good," he declares, is one of the professions that 
are full ; and if he knew for a certainty that a 
man was coming to his house with the design 
of doing him good, he should run for his life, 
for he would rather suffer evil the natural way. 
So too with charity : 

" It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of 
time and money on the needy, is doing the utmost by his 
mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain 
to relieve. Some show their kindness to the poor by em- 
ploying them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder 
if they employed themselves there ? " 

We are not surprised to find that Thoreau's 
favourite modern author was Carlyle, the philo- 
sophy of Work (not in the commercial sense) 
being one that would eminently commend itself 
to the very practical mind of the author of 
Walcien. With Ruskin he is in some respects 
even more akin ; indeed, as a castigator of the 
faults of modern civilization and artificial society, 
he occupies in America a position very similar 
to that of Ruskin in England. There are many 
whole passages in Walden which are strikingly 
Ruskinian in their manner of thought and 
expression ; as for instance the following : * 

'* Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. 
The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony 
with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with 

* Page 216. 



Henry D. Thoreau. 1 3 ; 

the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature? She flourishes most 
alone, afar from the towns where they reside. Talk of 
heaven ! ye disgrace earth." 

Again the resemblance is very striking when 
we find Thoreau inveighing against the luxury 
of the railroad car, with its divans and ottomans 
and velvet cushions and " a malaria all the way.** 

" That devilish Iron Horse," he exclaims,* " whose ear- 
rending neigh is heard throughout the town, he it is that has 
browsed off" all the woods on Walden shore : that Trojan 
horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by 
mercenary Greeks." 

Many, too, are his strictures on the 
monstrous ugliness of recent American archi- 
tecture, and his meditations on the sacred delight 
of a man building his own dwelling, as he him- 
self did at Walden, and lingering lovingly over 
foundation, doors, windows, hearth, and every 
other detail. When he considers how flimsily 
modern houses are in general built, paid for or 
not paid for, as the case may be, he expresses 
his wonder that ** the floor does not give way 
under the visitor while he is admiring the 
gewgaws upon the mantelpiece, and let him 
through to the cellar, to some solid and honest, 
though earthy, foundation.*' Like Ruskin again, 
Thoreau declines to yield homage to the 
supremacy of the nineteenth century, even on 

* Page 208. 



138 Henry D. Thoreau. 

the score of such boasted modern inventions as 
\ the Telegraph and Post Office, for he insists 
\ that he only received one or two letters in all 
V his life that were worth the postage, and that 
the Telegraph cannot greatly benefit those who, 
it may be, have nothing important to communi- 
cate. For newspapers also, and all the trivialities 
of newspaper gossip, he had a profound contempt, 
caring nothing to read of men robbed or mur- 
dered, houses blown up, vessels wrecked, or 
cows run over on the railroad, because he could 
discover nothing memorable in this. Even 
books were not always found desirable : there 
being times when he " could not afford to 
sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to 
any work," — a remark which reminds one of 
Ruskin's statement that he never reads in the 
spring-time. In like manner Thoreau was in 
no way interested in the ordinary conversation 
of ** society ; *' for, as he characteristically 
observes, '* a goose is a goose still, dress it as 
you will." The author of Fors Clavigera has 
there put it oh record that he could never con- 
template a visit to a country which has no castles ; 
if however he had visited America during 
Thoreau s lifetime, I think he might have found 
a compensation even for this great disadvantage. 
At any rate, he might have met one kindred 
spirit across the Atlantic, one man who cared 
so little for party politics that he never voted, 



Henry D. Thoreau. 1 39 

and who, amidst all the hurry and fluster of his 
enterprising countrymen, preferred travelling on 
foot to being jerked along on a railroad. 

Mr. Lowell, in an essay on Thoreau in My 
Study Windows^ finds fault with him for this 
hostility to the tendency of his age. He com- 
plains of his exaggerated idea of self-import- 
ance, which led him (according to the critic's 
view) to prize a lofty way of thinking, **not so 
much because it was good in itself as because 
he wished few to share it with him." I think 
this is very unfair to Thoreau, and due to a 
complete lack of sympathy with the spirit in 
which he wrote. Still more surprising is the 
assertion that Thoreau was the victim of a 
morbid self-consciousness, and that his didactic 
style was the outcome of an unhealthy mind ! 
It is an unprofitable task for an admirer of a 
great man to combat charges such as these, 
which are only another proof, if proof were 
needed, of the fact that one man of genius is often 
lamentably and ludicrously unable to recognise 
and appreciate the merits of another, and that 
the best writers are often the most erroneous 
critics. It is impossible to estimate rightly any 
literary work, unless one is to some extent in 
sympathy with the aims and objects of the 
author ; a qualification which Mr. Lowell 
certainly does not possess in the case of 
Thoreau. The culminating absurdity of his 



140 Henry D, Thoreau. 



criticism is reached when he asserts that 
Thoreau " had no humour." The author of 
J^/<ai?;^ destitute of humour ! Even Mr. Mat- 
thew Arnolds recent dictum, that Shelley's 
literary immortality will be due to his prose 
writings rather than his poems, must yield the 
place of honour among the curiosities of 
criticism to this amazing and unsurpassable 
utterance on the part of the author of the 
Biglow Papers. 

There is one aspect of Thoreau s teaching 
which is scarcely mentioned by his biographers, 
though it is of considerable importance in form- 
ing a just estimate of his character ; I refer to 
his humanitarian views. His hatred of war is 
very strongly expressed in those passages 
where he condemns the iniquitous attack which 
the United States werfe then making on 
Mexico; war, he says, is "a damnable busi- 
ness ; " since those concerned in it, ** soldiers, 
colonel, captain, corporal, powder-monkeys, and 
all/' are in reality peaceably inclined, and are 
forced to fight against their common sense and 
consciences.*^ Of his detestation of the system 
of slavery I shall have occasion to speak further 
on. But Thoreau went much further than 
this ; his humanity was shown not only in his 
relation to men, but also in his dealings with 

* Essay on Civil Disobedience. 



Henry D. Thoreau. 141 

the lower animals. Emerson tells us that, 
though a naturalist, Thoreau used neither trap 
nor gun — a fact which must have been inde- 
pendently noticed by all readers of Walden or 
the diaries. It was his habit to eat no flesh : 
though with characteristic frankness he con- 
fesses to having once slaughtered and devoured 
a wood-chuck which ravaged his bean field. He 
laughs at the farmer who tells him that it is not 
possible to live on vegetable food alone, walk- 
ing at that very time behind the oxen, ** which, 
with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his 
lumbering plough along in spite of every 
obstacle." Yet at the same time, it must be 
admitted that he was not a consistent vege- 
tarian, for we find constant mention of his 
fishing in Walden Pond, and his dinner was 
sometimes composed of **a mess offish." This 
apparent contradiction in Thoreaus dietetic 
philosophy is explained in that chapter of 
Walden which is headed '* Higher Laws," 
where we find the fullest statement of his views 
on the humanitarian question. He begins by 
remarking that he finds in himself two instincts — 
one towards a higher and more spiritual life ; the 
other, the hunting-instinct, towards a primitive 
and savage state. He reverences both of these 
instincts, being of opinion that there is "a 
period in the history of individuals, as of the 
race, when the hunters are the best men." It 



/ 



142 Henry D. Thoreau. 

is natural, he thinks, that boys and youths 
should wish to shoulder a fowling-piece and 
betake themselves to the woods ; but (and here 
is the essence of Thoreaus teaching on this 
subject) *'at last, if he has the seeds of a better life 
in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a 
poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun 
and fish-pole behind." Thoreau himself had 
sold his gun long before his sojourn at Walden, 
and though he did not feel the same scruple 
about fishing, he nevertheless confesses that he 
could not fish '^without falling off a little in self- 
respect/' This leads him to dwell on the 
whole question of food, and he states his own 
opinion as being very strongly in favour of a 
purely vegetarian diet, which is at once more 
cleanly, more economical, and more moral than 
the usual system of flesh-food.*^ ''Whatever 
my own practice may be," he adds "I have no 
doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the 
human race, in its gradual inprovement, to 
leave off" eating animals, as surely as the savage 
tribes have left off" eating each other when 
they came in contact with the more civilized." 
This is Thoreau's testimony to that particular 
branch of the humanitarian movement ; and it 
is perhaps the more valuable testimony as 
coming from a perfectly unprejudiced witness, 

• Vide^ especially pp. 230-235. 



Henry D. Thoreau. 143 

one who, as he himself says, could at times 
" eat a fried rat with good relish/' 

The last point connected with Thoreau's 
teaching on which it will be necessary to 
enter, is the subject of politics. And here 
one might be tempted to state briefly, and 
once for all, that Thoreau had nothing to do 
with politics ; and thus follow the example 
of that writer on. natural history, mentioned 
by De Quincey, who, after heading a chapter 
with the words '* Concerning the Snakes of 
Iceland," proceeded to remark, '' There are 
no snakes in Iceland." But though Thoreau 
was no politician in the ordinary use of the 
word, and never voted in his life, yet, in an- 
other sense, he took a good deal of interest 
in American state-affairs, especially during 
the latter years of his life, and left several 
pamphlets and lectures of the highest possible 
merit.. In his essay on Civil Disobedience y 
he gives expression to that strong feeling of 
individualism which caused him to resent the 
meddling and muddling propensities, as they 
seemed to him, of American government, as 
seen in the Mexican war abroad, and slavery 
at home. *' Must the citizen," he asks, " resign 
his conscience to the legislator }^' In one way 
he felt he could make a vigorous protest, and 
that was on the occasion when he confronted 
the Government in the person of its tax-col- 



T44 Henry D. Tkoreau. 

I actor. He refused to pay the poll-tax, and 
was on this account put into prison, the true 
place, as he says, for a just man, *' under a 
Government that imprisons any unjustly." 
His own account of his own incarceration, and 
the night he spent in prison, may be found, told 
in his best and most incisive style, in this same 
essay on Civil Disobedience. The two main 
causes of his withdrawal of his allegiance to 
the state were, as I have already said, the 
aggressive war waged on Mexico and the 
maintenance of slavery in Massachusetts ; he 
did not care " to trace the course of his dollar," 
paid in taxes to the State, ** till it buys a man, 
or a musket to shoot one with." On the 
subject of slavery he was strongly and pro- 
foundly moved. There is reason to believe 
that his hut at Walden was used as '* a station 
on the great under-ground railway — a refuge 
for the victims of the slave trade.*' * No more 
powerful and eloquent indictment of the in- 
iquities of that unholy traffic was ever published 
than in his three papers on Slavery in Massa- 
chusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown, and 
The Last Days of John Brown. Those who 
have hitherto imagined Thoreau to have been a 
mere recluse, interesting only as a hermit in an 

* Vide Preface to Mr. Stevenson's Familiar Studies of 
Men and Books. 



Henry D. Tkoreau. 145 

age when hermits were somewhat out of date, 
will be obliged to reconsider their opinion, 
if they take into consideration these splendid 
essays, so full of sound common sense, 
trenchant satire, and noble enthusiasm for 
humanity. 

But it is time now to bid farewell to Thoreau 
in his character of philosopher and moralist, 
and to view him awhile in another light. He 
has been well called by Ellery Channing the 
" Poet- Naturalist ; " for to the ordinary quali- 
fications of the naturalist — patience, watchful- 
ness, and precision — he added in a rare degree 
the genius and inspiration of the poet. He 
may be described as standing midway between 
old Gilbert White of Selborne, the naturalist 
par excellence^ and Michelet, the impassioned 
writer of that wonderful book VOiseau. 
He had all that amazing knowledge of the 
country, its Fauna and Flora, which character- 
ised Gilbert .White, his familiarity with every 
bird, beast, insect, fish, reptile, and plant, 
being something little less than miraculous to 
the ordinary unobservant townsman. Very 
suggestive of Selborne, too, was that pocket- 
diary of Thoreau's, in which were entered the 
names of all the native Concord plants, and the 
date of the day on which each would bloom. 
** His power of observation," Emerson tells 
us, '* seems to indicate additional senses." 



146 Henry D. Thoreau. 

On the other hand, he equalled Michelet — and 
it is scarcely possible to give him greater praise 
than this — in that still higher creative power, 
which can draw from a scientific fact of natural 
history a poetical thought or image to be 
applied to the life of man. As Michelet could 
see in the heron the type of fallen grandeur, 
the dispossessed monarch still haunting the 
scenes of his former glory ; or in the wood- 
pecker the sturdy solitary workman of the 
forest, neither gay nor sad in mood, but happy 
in the performance of his ceaseless task ; so 
Thoreau delighted in idealising and moralising 
on the facts which he noted in his daily rambles 
by forest, river, or pond. He sees the pin- 
cushion galls on the young white oaks in early 
summer, the most beautiful object of the woods, 
though but a disease and excrescence, ''beauti- 
ful scarlet sins, they may be.'' *' Through our 
temptations," he adds, *' ay, and our falls, our 
virtues appear." Countless instances of this 
kind of thought could be picked out from his 
diaries and the pages of Walden; in fact, 
Thoreau has been blamed, and not altogether 
without reason, for carrying this moralising 
tendency to excess — a fault which he perhaps 
acquired through the influence of the Transcen- 
dental movement. In love of birds he cer- 
tainly yielded no whit to Michelet himself; 
and he is never weary of recording his en- 



Henry D. Thoreau. 147 

counters with the bob-o'-links, cat-birds, whip- 
poor-wills, chickadees, and numerous other 
species. His paper on the Natural History of 
Massachusetts gives a short and pithy summary 
of his experience in this subject ; but he had 
usually a strange dislike of writing detached 
memoirs, preferring to let the whole subject 
rest undivided in his mind. His studies 
as naturalist were too much a part of his whole 
character to be kept separate from the rest, and 
must therefore be sought for throughout the 
whole body of his works. This intense love of 
woodcraft, together with his taste for all Indian 
lore, and all hunting adventure, gives a wild 
and racy charm to Thoreau's books which often 
reminds one of Defoe and other early writers. 
On the subject of fishing not even Izaak 
Walton himself could write as Thoreau has 
done, though one is somewhat reminded of the 
father of the "gentle craft*' in reading 
passages such as the following : * ** Who knows 
what admirable virtue of fishes may be below 
low-water mark, bearing up against a hard 
destiny } Thou shalt ere long have thy way 
up all the rivers, if I am not mistaken. Yea, 
even thy dull watery dream shall be more than 
realized. Keep a stiff fin then, and stem all the 
tides thou mayst meet." Still more wonderful 
are the descriptions of the weird and mysterious 
♦ «« A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," p. 44* 



148 Henry D. Thoreau. 

characteristics of fishing — the cork that goes 
dancing down the stream when suddenly 
** emerges this fabulous inhabitant of another 
element, a thing heard of but not seen, as if it 
were the creation of an eddy, a true product of 
the running stream ; " or, still more memorable, 
the midnight fishing on Walden Pond when 
the angler, anchored in forty feet of water, 
*' communicated with a long flaxen line with 
mysterious nocturnal fishes" below, now and 
then feeling a vibration along the line ** indicativ/ 
of some life prowling about its extremity, sonr^ 
dull uncertain blundering purpose." If Thore*fS 
could thus sympathise with the mysteries ?s 
fish-life, we are the better able to believe wh^" 
his biographers more than once tell us, thlX 
fishes often swam into his hand and would allq^» 
him to lift them out of the water, to the u?" 
speakable amazement of his companions in t?^ 
boat. His influence over animals seems indei^^ 
to have been little less than miraculous, and i*s 
calls many of the legends of the anchorites ^^ 
the Middle Ages, and of St. Francis d'Assi^» 
As Kingsley has pointed out in his Hermits, t -^ 
power of attracting wild animals was doubtkS 
in large measure due to the hermits' habit ?^ 
sitting motionless for hours, and their perfc*" 
freedom from anger or excitement, so that th^" 
is nothing absurd or improbable in such storj* » 
as those of the swallows sitting and singing ^" 



V 



Henry D. Tkoreau. 1 49 

the knees of St. Guthlac, or the robin building 

its nest in St Karilef s hood. Much the same 

is recorded of Thoreau's habitual patience and 

immobility. Emerson tells us that *'he knew 

how to sit immovable, a part of the rock he 

rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish, 

which had retired from him, should come back 

and resume its habits, nay, moved by curiosity, 

should come to him and watch him." Of all 

' -. such stories of strange sympathy between men 

H and the lower animals none are so beautiful as 

w-those recorded in the life of St. Francis ; but 

lo certainly Thoreau may claim the honour of hav- 

arng approached nearest in modern times to that 

rejense of perfect brotherhood and sympathy with 

0=111 innocent creatures. There is a singular re- 

^^semblance between the legend of the tench 

dcvhich followed the boat in which St. Francis 

fawas praying ; and some of the anecdotes told 

paibout Thoreau. 

w^k Thoreau*s retirement to Walden has naturally 
lo^^d many people to consider him as a sort of 
denodern hermit, and the attraction he exercised 
uj»ver the inhabitants of the woods and waters 
ev^vas only one of many points of resemblance, 
rp, There was the same recognition of the universal 
tici>rotherhood of men, the same scorn of the sel- 
a.rt.ish luxury and childish amusements of society, 
♦ «cnd the same impatience of the farce which men 
all ** politics," the same desire of self-concentra- 



1 50 Henry D. Thoreau. 

tion and undisturbed thought. Thoreau also 
possessed, in a marked degree, that power of 
suddenly and strongly influencing those who 
conversed with him, which was so characteristic 
of the hermits. Young men who visited him 
were often converted in a moment to the belief 
**that this was the man they were in search of, the 
man of men, who could tell them all they should 
do." ^ But it would be a grievous wrong to 
Thoreau to allow this comparison, a just one up 
to a certain point, to be drawn out beyond its 
fair limits. He was something more than 
a solitary. He had higher aims than the 
anchorites of old. He went to the woods, as 
he himself has told us, because he wished " to live 
deliberately, to front only the essential facts of 
life." So far he was like the hermits of the east. 
But it was only a two-years' sojourn, not a life- 
visit, that he made to Walden ; his object was 
not merely to retire, but to fit himself for a 
more perfect life. He left the woods ^* for as 
good reason as he went there," feeling that he 
had several more lives to live, and could not 
spare more time for that one. Even while he 
lived at Walden he visited his family and 
friends at Concord every two or three days ; 
indeed, one of his biographers t asserts that he 

* Emerson's " Memoir of Thoreau," p. 18. 
t Ellery Channing's " Memoir,'* p. 18. 



Henry D. Thoreau. 151 

** bivouacked *' at Walden rather than actually 
lived there, though this is hardly the impression 
conveyed by Thoreau himself or other author- 
ities. Very different also was Thoreau in his 
complete freedom from the morbid asceticism 
and unhealthy habit of body, which too often 
distinguished the hermits. His frugality was 
deliberate and rational, based on the belief that 
the truest health and happiness must be sought 
in wise and unvarying moderation ; but there 
was no trace of any unreasoning asceticism ; his 
object being to vivify, not mortify, the flesh. 
His nature was essentially simple and vigorous ; 
he records in his diary * that he thought bath- 
ing one of the necessaries of life, and wonders 
what kind of religion could be that of a certain 
New England farmer, who told him he had not 
had a bath for fifteen years. Now we read of 
St. Antony — and the same is told of most other 
hermits — that he never washed his body with 
water, and could not endure even to wet his 
feet ; dirtiness therefore must be considered a 
sine qua non in the character of a true hermit, 
and this would entirely disqualify Thoreau for 
being ranked in that class. It is at once 
pleasanter and more correct, if we must make 
any comparisons at all, to compare him to the 
philosopher Epictetus, who lived in the vicinity 

* "Summer," pp. 352, 353. 



152 Henry D. Thoreau. 

of Rome in a little hut which had not so much 
as a door, his only attendant being an old 
servant-maid, and his property consisting of 
little more than an earthen lamp. Thoreau had 
the advantage over the Stoic in having no ser- 
vant-maid at Walden ; but as he indulged him- 
self in a door, we may fairly set one luxury 
against the other, and the two philosophers may 
be classed on the whole as equally praiseworthy 
examples of a consistent simplicity and hardi- 
hood. 

Before proceeding to consider the literary 
value of Thoreau s writings, I will say a few 
words more about his character and general 
mode of life. His bodily vigour is mentioned 
by all who have written of him,* and all lay 
stress on his wonderful fitness of body and 
mind, which remind us of some of Charles 
Kingsley s best features of character. He ate 
little flesh, drank no wine, seldom used tea, 
coffee, butter, milk, and refused to be ** upset 
and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and 
whirlpool called a dinner." At Walden he 
often made a satisfactory meal off a dish of 
purslane boiled and salted, or the ears of green 
sweet-corn. He baked his own bread, leavened 
at first, but afterwards without yeast, according 
to a recipe of M. P. Cato, published two centur- 

* Vide Emerson's " Memoir," p. 13, 



Henry D. Thoreau. 153 

les before Christ. Side by side with this sturdy 
independence, he possessed a wide catholic 
spirit of humanity and sympathy with the whole 
human race ; he will not be better or worse than 
his fellow-men. We are reminded of the writ- 
ings of Walt Whitman himself, the greatest 
literary figure among all Thoreau's fellow- 
countrymen, when we hear him saying, *' I 
never dreamed of any enormity greater than I 
have committed. I never knew, and never 
shall know, a worse man than myself."* I have 
already said that Thoreau was full of reverence 
for all religion and antiquity. He was deeply 
interested in all that related to the aboriginal 
Ijidian tribes, of whom there is much mention 
in his account of his visits to the Maine Woods ; 
and he often records in his diary the finding of 
arrow-heads and spear-points. It is curious 
also to find him speaking favourably of class- 
ical learning in the chapter of Walden on Read- 
ing. Nevertheless he owned his full share of 
American self-assertion and pugnacity. In writ- 
ing his Walden he proposes *' to brag as lustily 
as chanticleer in the morning/* if only to wake 
up his neighbours ; and he does not omit to 
chronicle the fact that he took up his abode in 
the woods on Independence Day. A more 
provoking habit was his whim of extolling his 
native Concord as superior to all other locali- 

* Walden^ p. 84. 



1 54 Henry D. Thoreau. 

ties, and of asserting that most of the pheno- 
menaobserved elsewhere, even in the Arctic circle, 
might be found there. This, as Emerson has 
pointed out, was no doubt in great measure 
meant as a playful exaggeration, by way of 
indicating that there is plenty to be learnt in all 
places ; but it was perhaps also due in some 
degree to that tendency to paradox in convers- 
ation which I have already mentioned. His 
love of liberty was at all times genuine and 
profound, and appeared both in his personal 
resistance to the demands of a corrupt govern- 
ment, and in the ready assistance he lent to the 
cause of emancipation. Yet he was no empty 
enthusiast for the mere name of liberty, but 
could well discern the true freedom from the 
false. The behaviour of his fellow-citizens who 
could restore an escaped slave to his master, 
at the very time when they were celebrating 
their national independence, strikes him as 
ludicrously incongruous. ** Now-a-days,'' he 
remarks — in his essay on Slavery in Massa- 
cktcsettSy — ** men wear a fool's-cap and call it a 
liberty-cap. I do not know but there are some 
who, if they were tied to a whipping-post, and 
could get but one hand free, would use it to 
ring the bells and fire the cannons, to celebrate 
their liberty." This independence of character 
was maintained unbroken not only throughout 
all the active years of his life, but also through 



Henry D. Thoreau. 155 

the long sad months of illness that preceded his 
death. Though suffering terribly from sleep- 
lessness, he refused to take any opiate drug ; 
preferring, like a true Stoic, to face the 
full reality of his destiny without shrinking. 
Wrapped in his usual reserve, he worked on 
unfalteringly to the last, completing in his Maine 
Woods the stories of his favourite Indian tribes, 
whose traditional characteristic of silent forti- 
tude and passive resignation to fate he himself 
was then equalling. 

The earliest written of Thoreau's books was 
the Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers^ 
a record of a holiday-trip made in 1839 in com- 
pany with his brother. The Week is prefaced 
by a short account of the river Concord, which 
may be compared with Hawthorne's description 
in The Old Manse^ and is divided by days into 
seven chapters, each full of accounts of the 
scenery through which the brothers passed, 
notes and observations on natural history, 
quotations from poets, and general moral reflec- 
tions. Next to Walden, it seems to have become 
in America the best known of Thoreau's books, 
and is highly praised by EUery Channing in his 
life of Thoreau, though it is but a poor precursor 
of his great work. Those who look to the 
Week for anything comparable to Walden will 
be disappointed, the incidents recorded being 
often too trivial, the moralising tendency exces- 



156 Henry D. Thoreau. 

sive, and the style of the writing crude and im- 
mature. There is something rather wearisome, 
and even pedantic (a strange fault in Thoreau), 
in the too numerous classical allusions and 
references to Homer, Sophocles, Persius, and 
other ancient writers, while the number of quot- 
ations from English poets is something posi- 
tively overwhelming, and furnishes a notable 
example of that literary fault which, under the 
appellation oijlicxe de bouche, has been so justly 
censured by De Quincey in the case of Hazlitt. 
None the less, there are some splendid passages 
in the book, worthy to be set beside anything 
that Thoreau ever wrote, especially the dis- 
courses on religion and friendship already re- 
ferred to, and a critical estimate of Chaucer s 
genius. 

Omitting for the present any mention of 
Thoreau s shorter essays and studies, many of 
which were written early in his life and published 
in the *' Dial " and other American magazines, 
afterwards to be reprinted under the title of 
Excursions^ I will now speak briefly of Walden, 
which alone of Thoreau's books can be said to 
be at all popular in this country. It has been 
truly remarked that Thoreau's retirement to 
Walden was only one of many incidents in his 
life, and therefore ought not to be invested with 
too much significance apart from the rest. It 
was, however, undeniably the most character- 



Henry D. Thoreau. 157 

istic and important epoch in his career; the 
time when his powers were in. their very prime ; 
on the description of which he has lavished the 
utmost wealth of his rare and wayward genius. 
Walden is by far the finest of Thoreau s books, 
pre-eminent alike for the supreme interest of 
the subject-matter and the excellence of style 
and expression. We here see Thoreau at his 
very best, revelling in the perfect freedom of a 
simple and healthy life, and enjoying unlimited 
opportunities for his favourite pursuits ; his 
philosophical and moral teaching is here most 
lofty and uncompromising ; his style of writing 
peculiarly pithy and trenchant ; nowhere else 
do we find such felicity of illustration or so rich 
a vein of humour. Those critics who have 
accused Thoreau of a lack of humour must 
surely have forgotten such passages of Walden 
as that where, after describing the profound 
darkness of the woods on a starless night, he 
quietly remarks, ** I believe that men are gener- 
ally still a little afraid of the dark, though the 
witches are all hung, and Christianity and 
candles have been introduced ; " or, again, the 
inimitable account of his purchase for building 
purposes of an Irishman's shanty, where there 
were ** good boards all around, and a good 
window, of two whole squares originally, only 
the cat had passed out that way lately ; " or the 
picturesque description of the wretched habit- 
ation of John Field, another Irish labourer, 



158 Henry D. Thoreau. 

where he saw 

'* a wrinkled, sibyl-like, cone-headed infant, that sat upon its 
father's knee as in the palaces of nobles, and looked out 
from its home in the midst of wet and hunger inquisitively 
upon the stranger, with the privilege of infancy, not knowing 
but it was the last of a noble line, and the hope and cynosure 
of the world, instead of John Field's poor starveling brat." 

Nothing perhaps in Walden is more humor- 
ous than the accounts of the visits of uninvited 
guests, and their entertainment by Thoreau. 
If one came he was heartily welcome to share 
the frugal meal ; but if many came, nothing was 
said about dinner, *'the waste and decay of 
physical life " appearing to be *' miraculously 
retarded in such a case." ** So easy is it," adds 
Thoreau, ** though many housekeepers doubt it, 
to establish new and better customs in the place 
of the old." Sometimes there would arrive 
more troublesome and pertinacious guests, **men 
who did not know when their visit had termin- 
ated, though I went about my business again, 
answering them from greater and greater re- 
moteness." There are passages on every page 
of Walden full of this rare and subtle power, 
and manifesting that ** concentrated and nutty " 
style of writing at which Thoreau confessedly 
aimed. Nor did he disdain an occasional play 
on words, seldom used without good effect, as 
in the case of Flint's Pond, when he deplores 
the poverty of American nomenclature, which 



* 



Henry D. Thoreau. 1 59 

could desecrate a beautiful sheet of water with 
the name of some stingy farmer, some ancestral 
skin-flint by whom its banks had been ruthlessly 
laid bare ; or when he records the fact that 
while he was building his hut at Walden, a heap 
of bricks often served him for a pillow, adding, 
** yet I did not get a stiff neck for it that I re- 
member ; my stiff neck is of older date/' Occa- 
sionally, too, he loved, in the same manner as 
Ruskin, to analyse and dwell on some particular 
word ; for instance, when scornfully rejecting 
the advice of critics to keep his style within 
bounds, he insists on the merits of literary extra- 
vagance. ** I fear chiefly lest my expression be 
not extra-vagant enough, may not wander far 
enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily ex- 
perience. Extra-vagance 1 It depends on how 
you are yarded." Walden^ like all Thoreau s 
writings, has its faults. His vein of dry humour 
is sometimes liable to be misunderstood, and his 
fondness for epigram and paradox is occasion- 
ally overdone ; the didactic tendency also is apt 
to make him too discursive, and most of the 
poetical quotations might well be dispensed with. 
But these blemishes are small in comparison 
with the immense merits of this book — merits 
which have not yet received one-thousandth 
part of the recognition they deserve. 

Of Thoreau s three other books, The Maine 
Woods, A Yankee in Canada^ and Cape Cod^ it 



i6o Henry D. Thoreau. 

is not necessary to say much. The Maine 
Woods will probably be considered the most 
interesting, dealing as it does with the wild 
Indian tribes whom Thoreau loved so much, 
and the primitive forests, the savage desolation 
of which he was well fitted to appreciate and 
describe. There is little that is remarkable in 
the two other books, which are pleasant accounts 
of short tours made by Thoreau, and make no 
pretence of being important works like Walden. 
At the beginning of the Yankee in Canada 
Thoreau tells us that he is aware he has not got 
much to say about that country ; ** What I got 
by going to Canada was a cold.'* This is a can- 
did confession, and, if truth be told, a critical 
reader would not be unlikely to find much that 
is frigid in the Yankee in Canada^ as if the 
author's malady had reacted on the book. 

Next to Walden Thoreau is seen at his best 
in the short lectures and essays, which have 
been collected and reprinted under the titles 
of Excursions and Anti-Slavery and Reform 
Papers, I n the Excursions there is less of the 
didactic and moralising vein than in most of 
Thoreau s writings, and more of pure descrip- 
tion and word-painting ; the most interesting 
essays being those on A Winter s Walk^ Walk- 
ing, and Night and Moonlight. The impor- 
tance to Thoreau of his daily walk was greater 
than most men would be able to realize ; he 



Henry D. Thoreau. 1 6 1 

could not preserve his health and spirits unless 
he spent at least four hours a day among his 
favourite woods and fields and marshes ; and he 
did not scruple to reject unwelcome offers of 
companionship from intrusive visitors, on the 
ground that there was nothing so important to 
him as his walk ; he had no walks to throw 
away on company. His tendency in his saunt- 
erings was ever towards the west, the region of 
the wild and mysterious, in preference to the 
more civilized east ; an instinctive feeling which 
has also been noticed by John Burroughs, an 
American Essayist in several ways akin to 
Thoreau. Latterly he discovered a still more 
novel charm in the nocturnal rambles of which he 
gives an account in Night and Moonlight^ during 
the hours when " instead of the sun there are 
the moon and stars ; instead of the wood- 
thrush there is the whip-poor-will ; instead of 
butterflies in the meadows, fireflies — winged 
sparks of fire. Above all the wonderful trump 
of the bull-frog, ringing from Maine to Georgia." 
The Anti-Slavery Papers are inferior to nothing 
that Thoreau ever wrote, Walden perhaps 
excepted, being written \n his most telling style, 
terse, pointed, satirical, yet evidently inspired 
by the sincerest enthusiasm and devotion to a 
great cause. The best of all is his Plea J or 
Captain John Brown ^ a splendid eulogy of a 
truly noble man, which was spoken in a public 



i62 Henry D. Thoreau, 

hall at Concord after John Brown's arrest in 
1859, at a time when such a view of the slave 
question was neither common nor popular. It 
is so fine throughout that it is difficult to single 
out any particular passages as specially worthy 
of praise, but I cannot help quoting the follow- 
ing: * 

** Wlio is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be 
hung ? If you do not wish it, say so distinctly. While these 
things are being done, beauty stands veiled, and music is a 
screeching lie. Think of him ; of his rare qualities ! — such a 
man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand ; no 
mock hero, nor the representative of any party — such as the 
sun may not rise upon again in this benighted land. To 
whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant ; 
sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity ; and the only 
use to which you can put him is to hang him at the end of a 
rope ! You who pretend to care for Christ crucified, con- 
sider what you are about to do to him who offered himself 
to be the saviour of four millions of men." 

The other paper on The Last Days of John 
Brown is almost as fine. So too is Civil Dis- 
obedience^ of which I have before spoken. A 
few miscellaneous essays are included with this 
collection, a criticism of Carlyle being among 
the number. 

Thoreau's diaries afford much delightful 
reading, and give us a good insight into his 
character and mode of life. They abound in 
notes of his observations on Natural History, 

♦ Page 178. 



Henry D. Thoreau. 163 

with here and there some poetical thought or 
moral reflection attached ; sometimes there is 
an account of a voyage up the Assabet River, 
or a walking tour to Monadnock or some 
other neighbouring mountain. These diaries 
have been recently edited by Mr. Blake, a 
friend of Thoreau, who has arranged them 
according to seasons,* not years, various pas- 
sages written in different years being grouped 
together under the same day of the month, 
thus giving a more connected picture of the 
climate under which Thoreau lived, and the 
scenes in which he took such delight. 

Thoreau's poems are certainly the least 
successful part of his work. ^ They were 
published in various American magazines, and 
he is fond of interpolating parts of them in 
his books. Some selections from them may 
be found in Page's Life of Thoreau. But it 
must be confessed that /though Thoreau had a 
truly poetical mind, and though he may justly 
be styled the ** Poet-Naturalist," he had not 
that power of expression in verse which is a 
necessary attribute of the true poet. He was 
a clear-headed, fearless thinker, whose force 
of native shrewdness and penetration led him 
to test the value of all that is regarded as 
indispensable in artificial life, and to reject 
much of it as unsound ; he was gifted also with 
* Early Spring in Masscuhusetts^ Summer^ &c. 



1 64 Henry D. Thoreau. 



an enthusiastic love of nature, and with Hterary 
powers, which, if not of a wide and extensive 
range, were peculiarly appropriate — in an al- 
most unrivalled degree — to the performance 
of that life-duty which he set before him as 
his ideal. He was in the truest sense an 
original writer ; his work is absolutely unique. 
Walden alone is sufficient to win him a place 
among the immortals, for it is incomparaWt^ 
alike in matter and in style, and deserves to be 
a sacred book in the library of every cultured 
and thoughtful man ; it is, as Thoreau himself 
describes the pond from which it derives its 
name, *'a gem of the first water which Concord 
wears in her coronet." Concord is indeed rich 
in literary associations and reminiscences of 
great men. Emerson — Hawthorne — Thoreau ; 
these are mighty names, a trinity of illustrious 
writers,/ and it is not the least of Thoreau s 
honours that he has won a place in this literary 
brotherhood ; but perhaps his greatest claim to 
immortality will be found in the fact that there 
is a natural affinity and fellowship between his 
genius and that of Walt Whitman, the great 
poet-prophet of the large-hearted democracy 
that is to be. We see in Walt Whitman the 
very incarnation of all that is free, healthy, 
natural, sincere. A leviathan among modern 
writers, he proclaims with titanic and oceanic 
strength the advent of the golden age of 



Henry D. Thoreau. 165 

Liberty and Nature. He proclaims ; but he 
will not pause to teach or rebuke ; he leaves it 
to others to explain by what means this 
glorious democracy, this ** love of comrades," 
may be realized, and contents himself with a 
mighty and irresistible expression of the fact. 
Thoreau, though less catholic and sanguine in 
tone, but rather an iconoclast, a prophet of 
warning and remonstrance, and, as such, 
narrower and intenser in scope, nevertheless 
shares to the full all Walt Whitman's enthusiasm 
and hardihood and sincerity. He sets himself 
to apply this same new doctrine of simplicity to 
the facts of everyday life, and by his practice 
and example teaches how the individual may 
realize that freedom of which the poet sings. 
While America produces such writers as these, 
there seems nothing exaggerated or improbable 
in the most sanguine forecast of the great future 
that awaits American literature, a future to 
which Thoreau, himself American to the back- 
bone, looked forward with earnest and trustful 
anticipation. 

" If the heavens of America," he says, " appear infinitely 
higher, and the stars brighter, I trust that these facts are 
symbolical of the height to which the philosophy, and 
poetry, and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar. 
At length, perchance, the immaterial heaven will appear as 
much higher to the American mind, and the intimations 
that star it as much brighter." * 

* Excursions^ p. 182. 



1 66 Henry D. Thoreau. 

Certain it is that of all philosophers, whether 
in the old world or the new, few have read the 
mysteries of this immaterial heaven and its starry- 
intimations more truthfully and faithfully than 
Thoreau. 



William Godwin. 

William Godwin's life is a remarkable in- 
stance of how the longevity of a man of genius 
may, under certain circumstances, be a positive 
obstacle to his fame. Had he died at the close 
of the eighteenth century, instead of living to 
see thirty-six years of the nineteenth, it seems 
probable that his reputation with posterity as a 
thinker and a writer would have stood higher 
than it stands at present, or is ever likely to 
stand. For in the acquisition of fame, as of 
other things, opportunity is often an important 
consideration ; and it cannot be denied that the 
actors on this stage of life may gain as much 
advantage from a graceful and timely exit as 
from an opportune entry. In this matter 
Godwin was unquestionably unfortunate ; his 
great, striking, and original works were all 
written before 1 800 ; while his later writings, 
excellent and conscientious as they were, can- 
not be said to have added in any way to his 
permanent repute, except perhaps in the case 



1 68 William Godwin, 

of his reply to Malthus* Essay on Population. 
In more than one sense the year 1800 was 
the turning-point in his previously brilliant 
career ; for it was then that his drama 
Antonio on which he had rashly built his 
hopes, met with complete failure : while from 
about this time may be dated the commence- 
ment of the money troubles which so greatly 
embittered his later life. Henceforth he was 
seen in the character of the needy book-maker 
rather than the keen literary enthusiast ; out- 
living, as the years went by, not only his early 
friends and political associates, but, which was 
still more sad, his own stern philosophical self- 
respect, and the high hopes and aspirations 
which had inspired his Political Justice, 
Under these circumstances it is not surprising 
that the familiarity of so near a view should 
have bred, in the public estimation of Godwin's 
genius, a certain measure of contempt, and that 
the philosopher who was somewhat over-rated 
in the outset of his career should afterwards 
have been unduly depreciated. The loss of 
his wife, the talented and noble-minded Mary 
Wollstonecraft, in the first year of their 
married life, was in every way an irreparable 
blow to Godwin ; for the woman who died in 
the zenith of her intellectual and moral enthu- 
siasm was surely less to be pitied than the man 
who survived his happiness by nearly forty years. 



William Godwin. 169 



If we keep in mind this fact, that the 
Godwin of the closing years of the last century, 
the author of Political Justice^ and husband of 
Mary Wollstonecraft, was a very different 
person from the impecunious bookseller of 
twenty or thirty years later, whose correspond- 
ence with his more generous and open- 
handed son-in-law, Shelley, shows him in a far 
from favourable light, we shall be less surprised 
when we note the wide divergence of opinion 
that seems to have existed, and still to exist, 
respecting Godwin's character. While some 
have spoken of him as a philosopher of stern, 
unflinching disposition, and one of the leading 
pioneers of modern thought — a view, which, 
as I hope to show, finds justification in the 
nobler passages of his life — others have been 
able to see in him nothing more than a cold- 
blooded, unemotional sophist, preaching a 
doctrine which he himself was by no means 
careful to practise in his actual intercourse with 
mankind. Nor can it be denied that there is 
some basis of truth in the unfavourable, as 
well as in the favourable judgment ; though I 
think that the total and final impression 
conveyed by a study of Godwin s character in 
all its phases should be a more pleasant and 
charitable one. Two leading features are 

♦ Vide Prof. Dowden's " Life of Shelley," vol. ii. 



170 William Godwin. 

easily discernible in his nature, both in the 
earlier and the later period of his life. One 
is the strong didactic tendency, which was 
fostered even in childhood by the Calvinistic 
atmosphere of his surroundings ; the other is 
the predominance of the purely intellectual 
element, which he cultivated to a great ex- 
tent at the expense of the emotional. The 
description given by Godwin's biographer * 
of his early piety and the severity of his 
religious training may make the reader smile 
at the odd contrast with his later convictions, 
but it accounts for that serious tone which 
prevades all Godwin's thoughts and writings. 
The boy whose earliest books were the 
Pilgrinis Progress and the Account of the 
Pious Deaths of Many Godly Children, 
who was seriously reproved for his levity when 
he happened one Sunday to take the cat in his 
arms, soon developed the habit of preaching to 
other lads of his acquaintance, and is said to 
have dwelt so powerfully on the subject of 
" sin and damnation *' that he drew tears from 
the eyes of his audience. As he grew older 
his religious belief was changed, but he always 
retained somewhat of the preacher s earnestness^ 
and gravity, together with that characteristic 
spirit of mild, yet indomitable pertinacity, 



♦ a 



Life of William Godwin," by C. Kegan Paul, 1876. 



William Godwin. 171 

which shows itself so amusingly in the history 
of his relations with Tom Cooper, the high- 
spirited pupil who not unnaturally rebelled 
against the course of rigid discipline and un- 
remitting benevolence to which Godwin sub- 
jected him. The habit of minute self-in- 
spection is illustrated by many passages in 
the diary which Godwin always kept with 
marked care and regularity ; and as he 
persisted in examining his own mind, so he 
persisted in probing every intellectual question 
with the cold clear logic of a calm and unim- 
passioned reason. To such an extent did he 
carry this exaltation of the reasoning faculties 
over the emotional impulses, that he was some- 
times led astray by it into ludicrous and ex- 
travagant assertions, as when, in his insistence 
on the absolute power of the will in maintaining 
complete self-control, he speaks disparagingly 
of sleep as " one of the most conspicuous infir- 
mities of the human frame.'* On the whole, 
however, too much has been made of this defi- 
ciency of the sentimental element in Godwin s 
character: if he was "cold-blooded," it was in 
the outer appearance far more than the inward 
reality ; and though it was his wont thus to mask 
himself in a cloud of philosophical imperturba- 
bility, there are many indications that the emotion 
was latent and not absent. In a fragmentary an- 
alysis of his own character he speaks of himself as 



172 William Godwin. 

nervous, timid, and embarrassed in the presence 
of strangers ; while the strength and warmth 
of his friendships, especially those with young 
men, for whom he seems always to have had a 
considerable attraction, and above all, his deep 
affection for Mary Wellstonecraft, show that 
he was by no means devoid of the usual 
human sympathies. Nor was he free from the 
corresponding sentimental faults ; his egotism 
and vanity making him extraordinarily sensitive 
to criticism, unless most guardedly expressed, 
and apt to take offence on slight provocation 
from even his best friends. In brief, he was a 
strange mixture of philosophic strength and 
human weakness ; though it must be remem- 
bered that these inconsistencies became far more 
manifest in his latter years than in the prime of 
his manhood. His conduct during the state- 
trials in 1 794 proved him to be gifted with high 
courage and sincere conviction ; and if it be 
right, as I believe it to be, to judge a great man 
by his best work rather than his worst, the 
period of Godwin's life which demands most 
consideration from those who wish to understand 
him is the last decade of the eighteenth century, 
in which were written his great work, Political 
yusticBy and his best novel, Caleb Williams. 
It is in those two books that his philosophical 
opinions and his literary powers may be most 
conveniently studied. 



William Godwin. 173 



Political yustice is one of those books 
which exercise a permanent influence on the 
social and political opinion of the country in 
which they are written, yet fail to win for them- 
selves a permanent and individual fame. To- 
wards the close of the last century the expectation 
of great and radical changes in the near future 
had taken powerful hold of men's minds, and the 
publication of Godwin's book, which gave ex- 
pression to the vague sentiments and revolution- 
ary aspirations then afloat, carried, as De Quin- 
cey has described it, ** one single shock into the 
bosom of Englishsociety, fearful but momentary." 
Yet fifty years later Godwin's philosophic system 
was practically forgotten ; not merely because 
a good deal of it had been weighed in the balance 
and found wanting, or even toned down and 
withdrawn by Godwin himself in subsequent 
writings ; but because most of its best teaching 
had silently but effectually done its work, being 
absorbed into the minds of other thinkers and 
writers, and thus leavening the whole mass of 
Radical philosophy, In these days of political 
enfranchisement and liberty of thought, we are 
in danger of forgetting how deeply the modern 
Radical school is indebted to its forerunners of 
a hundred years back, and how much of the 
speculation of a book such as Political yustice 
has passed unrecognised into the current opinion 
of to-day, while still more is advanced, in almost 



174 William Godwin, 

the same words as those used by Godwin, by 
social reformers who are struggling to bring on 
a more drastic change. 

'* It is an old observation," says Godwin, 
'* that the history of mankind is little else than 
a record of crimes." It seems to have been 
supposed from this that Godwin was animated 
by a foolish and unscientific dislike of historical 
study ; such, however, was not the case ; for he 
himself draws an argument from the improve- 
ments effected in the past in favour of further 
improvement in the future, while he distinctly 
asserts, not that society has been wholly useless 
in defending mankind from want and incon- 
venience, but that *' it effects this purpose in a 
very imperfect degree." His indictment of the 
evils of the present social system is powerful 
and, in the main, unanswerable. Whatever 
may be thought of the remedies which he 
proposes to apply, he was not guilty of the 
absurdity, sometimes attributed to him, of 
picturing the past and present of man's destiny 
as a scene of unrelieved blackness and misery, 
and at the same time holding out a promise of 
the immediate realization of a golden future. 
His doctrine of the perfectibility of man does 
not differ in essential points from the belief held 
by the elder Mill, that outward circumstances 
are more powerful than innate principles, and 
that, therefore, the possibility of improvement 



William Godwin. 175 

is practically unlimited. He is also careful 
to state that by perfectibility he does not 
mean perfection ; the latter idea being incon- 
ceivable, while the former is merely the recogni- 
tion of the fact that all improvements which can 
be conceived can also be realised. In short, so 
far from placing himself in opposition to the 
lessons of history and what is now known as 
evolution, Godwin, who was himself a student 
and writer of history, finds in these lessons the 
strongest corroboration of his theories. The 
knowledge that the present defective society 
has been evolved from a still more defective 
state in the past, is a poor argument for sup- 
posing that we have now arrived at the ne plus 
ultra of civilisation. It points rather to the 
certainty of still further and further reform, or 
in other words, to the perfectibility of mankind. 
The instrument by which this perfectibility 
can be best promoted is, according to Godwin, 
the spread of intellectual enlightenment. That 
vice is an error of judgment is his fundamental 
doctrine, from which it follows that as men be- 
come wiser, they will also become more virtuous 
and just, justice and virtue being regarded as 
synonymous terms. Godwin does not hesitate 
to express his opinion that the aim of justice is 
the general good, apart from every private or 
personal consideration ; and that utility, by 
which is meant the welfare of the greatest 



176 William Godwin. 

number, is the true standard of virtue ; he even 
ventures to carry this doctrine to its logical con- 
clusion, and to insist on the suppression of all the 
domestic affections when they clash with the 
public interests. To love one's neighbour as 
oneself is, he tells us, a comprehensive maxim, 
'* possessing considerable merit as a popular 
principle," but he complains that it '* is not 
modelled with the strictness of philosophical 
accuracy," since justice prompts us to consider 
neither one's neighbour nor oneself, but simply 
what is conducive to the good of the community. 
This doctrine, however, though highly charac- 
teristic of Godwin s logical, matter-of-fact mind, 
is not an essential part of his philosophy ; for he 
strongly asserts that each individual must deter- 
mine for himself in what manner he will be acting 
most in accordance with the demands of justice, 
since ** there is no criterion of duty to any man 
but in the exercise of his private judgment.*' 
This is one of the most important points in all 
Godwin's teaching, containing, as it does, the 
assertion of the incompatibility of tyranny and 
justice. '* To a rational being," he says, ** there 
can be but one rule of conduct — justice ; and one 
mode of ascertaining that rule — the exercise of 
his understanding." The understanding, to be 
worthy of its name, must be free and unfettered, 
and must not yield its assent to any proposition 
which rests merely on a basis of law and author- 



William Godwin. 177 

ity ; since free judgment is the very essence and 
foundation of all virtuous action ; while, on the 
other hand, tyranny, which commands the assent 
without convincing the reason, is absolutely 
fatal to morality. This brings us back to the 
point from which we started ; that the means by 
which a reformation can be worked out, whether 
in societies or individuals, must be sought 
primarily in the spread of enlightened opinion ; 
and in connection with this subject it becomes 
necessary to consider what are the chief obstacles 
which stand in the way of such an enlighten- 
ment, and why men are prevented from discern- 
ing the true principles of morality and justice. 

In the first place, Godwin strongly deprecates 
every form of coercion, except such force as is 
necessarily employed in self-defence, as for in- 
stance in repelling a foreign invader or domestic 
tyrant with whom argument is useless. Govern- 
ment he considers to be only justifiable ** so far 
as it is requisite for the suppression of force by 
force." ' No punishment is allowable except loss 
of personal liberty, and this should be inflicted 
solely for the general benefit, as a restraint im- 
posed on the individual offender, and not as a 
penalty or deterrent. All such institutions as 
oaths, tests, promises, religious codes, obedience, 
confidence, and the like, are condemned as in- 
terfering with the free exercise of private judg- 
ment and thus establishing a fictitious standard 



178 William Godwin. 



of morality. Even in education Godwin objects 
to all manner of compulsion, and looks forward 
to the time when "no creature in human form 
will be expected to learn anything, unless be- 
cause he desires it and has some conception of 
its value." The marriage-laws meet with his 
most emphatic disapproval, as constituting ** a 
monopoly and the worst of monopolies," and he 
strongly advocates the abolition of the marriage- 
bond, so that marriage, ** like every other affair 
in which two persons are concerned, may be re- 
gulated by the unforced consent of the parties." 
The sum of Godwin^s teaching on this subject 
of tyranny amounts to an uncompromising 
assertion of the rights of Individualism, any 
curtailment of which must tend to deprave that 
independence of thought by which alone men 
can attain to a right sense of political justice. 
But strongly as he condemns coercion, he re- 
serves his severest censures of all for the insti- 
tution of property, the subject of which he 
declares to be the key-stone of his philosophical 
fabric. Premising that the good things of the 
world are a common stock, from which each man 
has the right to draw what he needs, provided 
that he respects the equal right of his neigh- 
bour to these same '* means of improvement and 
pleasure," he points out at great length and 
with great clearness the many evils of the pre- 
sent system of inequality. Foremost among 



William Godwin. 179 

these evils are the spirit of subservience which 
is brought home to every house in the nation 
by the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth ; the 
spectacle of gross injustice perpetually presented 
to men's eyes by the ostentation of the rich, 
which engenders a universal passion for a simi- 
lar acquisition of luxuries ; the loss of that in- 
tellectual advancement which might be enjoyed 
by the great mass of mankind instead of being 
monopolised by a few ; the immense encourage- 
ment of vice, owing to '* one man's possessing 
in abundance that of w^hich another man is 
destitute ; '' and last, but not least, the tendency 
of large accumulations of property to promote 
aggressive and calamitous wars through the 
thirst for adding kingdom to kingdom. ** Her- 
editary wealth,'" says Godwin, **is in reality a 
premium paid to idleness, an immense annuity 
expended to retain mankind in brutality and 
ignorance. The poor are kept in ignorance by 
the want of leisure. The rich are furnished in- 
deed with the means of cultivation and literature, 
but they are paid for being dissipated and in- 
dolent." In the Enquirer^ written a few years 
later than Political Justice^ the same doctrine is 
reiterated. ** It is a gross and ridiculous error 
to suppose that the rich pay for anything. 
There is no wealth in the world except this — 
the labour of man. What is misnamed wealth 
is merely a power, vested in certain individuals 



1 80 William Godwin, 

by the institution of society, to compel others 
to labour for their benefit." Property is thus 
considered by Godwin to be a fatal hindrance 
to a clear-sighted appreciation of justice and 
therefore to the improvement of the human race. 
A study of the history of Socialism during the 
past century will afford proof that while God- 
win's name has been to a great extent forgotten, 
his teaching has certainly not fallen into abey- 
ance. 

It is not surprising that the promulgation of 
such opinions as these, together with many other 
accessory doctrines equally revolutionary in their 
tendency, should have caused Godwin to be 
looked upon as a dangerous innovator. But it 
ought not to be overlooked that the man who 
held these advanced views concerning govern- 
ment, marriage, education, property, and other 
social institutions, was in his own character the 
very contrary of a lawless or violent agitator, 
being especially remarkable for his calm, judicial 
temperament and dispassionate nature. It has 
been complained that Godwin "with the utmost 
calmness sweeps away one restraint after 
another." * But though this is quite true of 
Godwin as a speculator, it must be pointed out 
on the other hand that it is equally untrue of 
him as a social reformer ; on the contrary, he is 

* Stephen's English Thought of the Eighteenth Century^ 
vol. ii 



William Godwin. i8i 

cautious to a singular degree in the many safe- 
guards with which he hedges round his revolu- 
tionary schemes. He regards massacre as " the 
too possible attendant upon revolution," and 
massacre ** is the most hateful scene, allowing 
for its momentary duration, that any imagination 
can suggest." He consequently deprecates the 
use of any sort of violence, or anything that can 
tend to produce violence, in his crusade against 
tyranny and law ; his reformation is to be in 
every sense an intellectual and voluntary one, 
even political associations being discountenanced 
by him as likely to promote disorder. " The 
proper method," he says, **for hastening the 
decline of error and producing uniformity of 
judgment, is not by brute force or by regulation, 
which is one of the classes of force, but on the 
contrary, by teaching every man to think for 
himself." He has an unlimited confidence in 
the ultimate efficacy of the truth, which he be- 
lieves will be able to produce a spirit of dis- 
interestedness even in the matter of property. 
On this point he is as distinctly at variance 
with the communists of the present century as 
he is in agreement with them on general prin- 
ciples. 

As regards individual conduct, Godwin's 
teaching is a kind of benevolent stoicism. The 
human will can and ought to be all-powerful, 
not only in questions of morality, but also in 



i82 William Godwin. 

counteracting the infirmities of nature. Like 
Bacon he seems to dream of an age when mind 
shall be supreme over matter ; in the meantime 
he insists that there are intellectual medicines as 
well as physical, and that when we suffer 
maladies it is often because we consent to suffer 
them. Side by side with this stoic hardihood 
he inculcates the duty of a sympathetic benevo- 
lence, since ** there is no true joy, but in the 
spectacle and contemplation of happiness." 
How this moral exhortation, together with the 
mass of similar precepts which are scattered 
throughout the pages of Political Justice, can be 
reconciled with the doctrine of Necessity which 
he deliberately adopts, he fails, like other 
necessarians, to make clear ; in fact, herein con- 
sists the weak point of Godwin's treatise, that 
in aiming at giving it a precise and scientific 
basis in preference to an emotional one, he de- 
feats his own object and renders himself liable 
to argumentative attack on the very point where 
he professes to be invulnerable. He commits 
the error of attempting to give " mathematical 
reasons for moral actions " — to quote a phrase 
used by Shelley, who followed Godwin's philo- 
sophy while avoiding his method of imparting it 
— whereas, if he had been less anxious to give 
his work the appearance of perfect symmetry 
and complete logical consistency, and if he had 
ventured to rely more on that intuitive senti- 



William Godwin. 183 

ment of humanity, which is after all his strongest 
weapon, he might have created a still more 
powerful effect. So clear a thinker and so 
shrewd a critic as Mr. Leslie Stephen * has 
succeeded in finding some weak places in 
Godwin's philosophical system ; yet he has 
failed, I think, to shake that part of the struc- 
ture which alone is of vital importance, while his 
whole criticism is harsh in tone and too literal in 
its application. It is scarcely fair to say that 
Godwin '^ placidly ignores all inconvenient facts," 
or that he *' believes as firmly as any Christian 
in the speedy revolution of a New Jerusalem, 
four-square and perfect in its plan," when 
Godwin, grave and dispassionate thinker that 
he was, expressly provided against any such 
misunderstanding of his views regarding the 
future of mankind. "After all," he wrote, ''it 
may not be utterly impossible that the nature of 
man will always remain for the most part un- 
altered, and that he will be found incapable of 
that degree of knowledge and constancy which 
seems essential to a liberal democracy or a pure 
equality. ... A careful enquirer is always de- 
tecting his past errors ; each year of his life 
produces a severe comment upon the opinions 
of the last ; he suspects all his judgments and is 
certain of none." f We may rest assured that 

* English Ihought of the Eighteenth Century, voL ii., 
264 — 281. 

t Book viii., ch. x., second edition. 



184 William Godwin. 

Godwin was as far from being a crazy enthusiast 
as he was from being a reckless incendiary, and 
that though he was so far foredoomed to failure 
in his attempt to demonstrate scientifically 
moral and social truths incapable of logical 
proof or disproof, he was not writing of what he 
did not understand when he pointed to thfe 
present evils of society and to the absolute 
necessity of discovering a remedy. Opinions 
must differ as to the value of the remedy he 
suggests ; but none can deny that the social 
questions to which Godwin drew attention 
nearly a century ago have become of more and 
more pressing importance in the years that have 
since elapsed, and that his manner of discussing 
them is singularly clear and suggestive. In 
the very choice of the word Justice as the title 
for his book, he struck a true note and showed 
that he had instinctively hit upon the right track ; 
for we have already begun to discover that this 
question of justice, whether between man and 
man, or between the state and the individual, is 
destined to be the great crtix of modern politics. 
Caleb Williams, the novel which Godwin 
published a year later than his Political Justice^ 
is interesting to us for two reasons ; first for 
its intrinsic merits as a work of fiction, and 
secondly as furnishing a further illustration 
of the views expressed in its more important 
predecessor. It is a striking instance of a sue- 



William Godwin. 185 



cessful novel written by one who cannot be said 
to have been as a rule a successful novelist. Of 
the various characters introduced into the book 
the only two that have any real vitality are those 
of Caleb Williams himself and his master, 
Falkland ; but these two personages are so 
vividly drawn, and the position in which they 
stand towards one another is so graphically and 
impressively described, that the book possesses 
for many readers a charm which they can find 
in none other of Godwin's writings. In his 
delineation of Falkland, the chivalrous and 
courtly gentleman, whose life was poisoned by 
the secret guilt of a terrible crime committed 
years before under the direst provocation, 
Godwin was able to strike a blow at the so- 
called ** code of honour '* which looked to the 
chances of the duel for the settlement of per- 
sonal disputes where calm reason and argument 
alone could be of any avail. In Caleb Williams, 
who partly by accident, partly by design, 
becomes the sharer of Falkland's secret, we see 
the embodiment of that mild pertinacity and 
irrepressible love of enquiry which were con- 
spicuous features in Godwin's own character ; 
while the persecution inflicted on the servant 
who ventures to pry into the affairs of his 
master serves to illustrate how simplicity and 
thirst for knowledge, when they run counter to 
the pleasure of the powerful, are sure to bring 



1 86 William Godwin. 

calamity on their possessor. It is small wonder 
that Godwin wrote well on such a theme as this, 
for it was a theme after his own heart — this 
struggle of one individual, whose only fault was 
a too observant habit and stubborn independ- 
ence of mind, against all the forces of wealth 
and authority wielding the pains and penalties 
of a corrupt and venal law. The involuntary 
and irresistible attraction by which Caleb 
Williams is drawn on and on to the fatal dis- 
covery which ruins the happiness of his life is a 
fine feature of the story, and is probably the 
only indication in Godwin's novels of any 
imaginative power. As regards expression and 
style, the narrative, though not free from a some- 
what stilted and pompous phraseology, has the 
merit of being thoroughly lucid and direct, a 
quality which is observable in all Godwin's 
writings, whether literary or philosophic. 

When we look at Godwin's teaching as a 
whole, and ask wherein consists his chief merit 
as a thinker and his claim to be remembered by 
posterity, we shall probably come to the con- 
clusion that out of the wide field of moral, social, 
and political topics over which his intellect 
ranged, three points stand out conspicuous as 
striking illustrations of his mental sagacity and 
the foresight with which he in some measure 
anticipated the Radical opinion of a later time. 
First, the shrewd instinct by which he laid his 



William Godwin. 187 

finger on the question of property as the one 
which, more than any other, is apt to influence 
and warp the rectitude of private judgment, and 
which is therefore destined to demand the closest 
attention of all legislators and philosophers. 
Secondly, his uncompromising assertion of the 
freedom of individual opinion and the right of 
every citizen to shape his life as he chooses, 
with due respect to the similar rights of others. 
Communist though he was in principle, Godwin 
felt strongly that co-operation may have its 
drawbacks as well as its advantages, and this 
led him to point out that the system of equality 
which he advocated must not become in any 
way a system of repression, under which it 
might be difficult for each individual to follow 
the dictates of his own taste and judgment. To 
enable individuality to gather new strength and 
vindicate its claim to continued existence, he 
urges the adoption of frugality and simplicity of 
living, declaring that the wise course is for men 
'* to reduce their wants to the fewest possible, 
and as much as possible to simplify the mode of 
supplying them " — a doctrine still more clearly 
enforced half a century later in the writings of 
the Emersonian school. Thirdly, his unswerv- 
ing belief in the power of truth, and his con- 
fident appeal to the higher rather than the 
lower instincts of mankind, are well worthy of 
attention in this age of cynical indifferentism 



i88 William Godwin. 

and commercial money-making. He insists that 
*' men are not so entirely governed by self- 
interest as has frequently been supposed," in 
which conviction we see an anticipation of some 
of the best features of the Comtist philosophy. 
With ** Justice " as the watchword of his creed, 
and the perfectibility of man (in the sense of un- 
limited intellectual progress) set before him as 
the object of his hopes, he became the author 
of a philosophical system, which, though perhaps 
over-elaborate in its general scope and faulty in 
some of its details, has certainly the merit of 
having powerfully influenced the opinions and 
stimulated the enthusiasm of many to whom the 
cause of Humanity is dear. It was from God- 
win that Shelley drew much of that zeal for 
truth and freedom, without which his most im- 
portant poems would never have been written ; 
and it is to Godwin that we in great measure 
owe our recognition of the fact that both in state 
policy and individual conduct the only true 
morality must be looked for in the study of 
justice. As a prophet and fore-runner of the 
religion of Humanity, Godwin has a distinct 
claim on the memory and gratitude of the 
present age. 



Nathaniel Hawthorne s 
Romances. 

*• Hawthorne rides well his horse of the night." 
This remark of Emerson's, in allusion to the 
reticence of one of his guests at a social meet- 
ing, is happily descriptive of the literary charac- 
teristics by which the author of The Scarlet 
Letter has won himself a peculiar place among 
the immortals. There is something spectral 
and elusive about the creations of Hawthorne's 
genius. The reader of his tales is haunted 
throughout by a weird, indefinable sense of 
nocturnal phantasy, which seems to brood over 
these writings as over no other works of fiction. 
There have been greater and more powerful 
masters of the emotions of pity and terror ; other 
novelists have depicted the mysteries and 
sorrows of human existence in darker and 
stronger colours, and with a far wider range ; 
but no other writer has ever succeeded in dis- 
playing his conceptions through the medium of 



1 90 Nathaniel Hawthorne s JRomances. 

that twilight glimmer and filmy half-light, which 
affects our minds so strangely in reading Haw- 
thorne's romances. 

The combination of stern Calvinistic principles 
with some sort of classical refinement or artistic 
culture has often been observed to produce a 
character possessed of certain rich and pic- 
turesque qualities. In Hawthorne s case we 
see an instance of a similar effect. His genius 
resulted from a mixture of rigid Puritanism with 
the highest imaginative faculty. His Puritan 
sympathies — inherited from a line of ancestors 
who, as he himself loved to record, were famous 
for their persecution of Quakers and witches — 
had been fostered still further in boyhood by his 
intense study of The PilgrinHs Progress and 
other Puritan books. On the other hand, his 
love of the mysterious and romantic was derived 
partly from his sensitive organisation and partly 
from the circumstances of his early life — the 
lonely days spent in skating on Sebago Lake 
or shooting in the Maine woods, amid scenes 
full of traditionary legends and superstitions. 
His imagination, quickened by these youthful 
experiences — these '* cursed habits of solitude,*' 
as he calls them — enabled him to live afresh in 
the stern old Puritan times, and realise in vision 
the scenes with which his forefathers had been 
acquainted. '* Every phase of early New 
England life," writes one of his American 



Nathaniel Hawthornis Romances. 191 

admirers,* every type of early New England 
character, is familiar to him. The sea, the sky, 
the air, the storms, the winds, the seasons, the 
blazing hearth, the deep snows, the dark forest 
over which superstition had thrown its terrors, 
thanksgiving day, the election sermon, Thurs- 
day lecture, the solemn Sunday — all the 
memories of New England crowd his pages.*' 
Thus equipped, he appeared early in life on the 
field of literature, choosing as his special and 
congenial theme the mystery of Sin, in which 
subject his two natural proclivities, the religious 
and the imaginative, could meet and harmonise. 
To estimate the working of the moral law ; to 
note how the germ of evil sown by one man 
can result in a crop of calamities to others ; to 
track the secret effect of sin on the soul, and to 
question if it may be, like sorrow, a step in 
man's education — all this could give an outlet 
both to Hawthorne's innate Puritan tenden- 
cies and his love of imaginative speculation. 
Among his reminiscences of England, published 
in Our Old Home^ there is an account of a 
certain doctor of divinity, '* a perfect model of 
clerical propriety,'* who, having just come over 
from America for a tour in Europe, paid 
Hawthorne a visit at the Liverpool con- 
sulate. A week later he again presented 
himself, but this time transformed in appear- 
* J. W. Symonds' Oration on Hawthorne^ 1878. 



192 Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 

ance ** from the most decorous of metropolitan 
clergymen into the rowdiest and dirtiest of 
disbanded officers," having fallen into some 
pitfall *' not more of vice than terrible calamity." 
This tragedy, which Hawthorne says was the 
deepest he ever witnessed, was nothing more 
than an illustration from actual life of the topic 
on which he so often dwelt in his romances. 

Hawthorne's literary career was singularly 
and fortunately deficient in stirring and exciting 
incidents, the unruffled happiness of his domestic 
life contrasting strongly with the proverbial 
troubles of men of genius. Yet there was in 
him a restlessness of disposition which caused 
him to make many changes and migrations. 
In America, as his son tells us in his biography, 
he was ever shifting his quarters between 
Concord, Salem, and Lenox ; in England he 
yearned for the climate of Italy ; but when he 
found himself at Rome his affections reverted 
to England and America. '* I should like to 
sail on and on for ever " — so he said to a fellow- 
voyager — **and never touch the shore again ; " 
and those who study his life will probably come 
to the conclusion that this roving tendency, in- 
herited perhaps from his seafaring ancestors, 
was the main cause of the gloomy depression 
of his later years, which seems otherwise un- 
accountable. At any rate, two very distinct 
periods may be observed, without any fanciful 



Nathaniel Hawthorne s Rcmtances. 193 

arrangement, in Hawthorne's career ; the for- 
mer comprising the sixteen years preceding his 
visit to Europe, and the latter consisting of the 
last ten years of his life. It will be observed 
that almost all his most valuable work was done 
during the first, the American period ; once 
uprooted from his native soil, and sent a wander- 
ing tourist through the regular European beat, 
he could produce nothing comparable to his 
^reat early romances. Twice-told Tales^ Mosses 
from an Old Manse^ The Scarlet Letter^ The 
House of the Seven Gables^ and The Blithedale 
Romance were all published between 1837 and 
1853. Then Hawthorne was made American 
Consul at Liverpool, and henceforth wrote 
nothing better than Transformation^ Our Old 
Home, and the fragmentary stories of which 
Septimius is the chief. It is obvious that for 
some reason he had partly lost the cunning of 
his hand in these later years, and the explana- 
tion must probably be sought in the prolonged 
absence from his native soil, the desultory kind 
of life he led in Europe, and the unintellectual 
nature of his employment at Liverpool. It is 
odd to think of the author of The Blithedale 
Romance as an inmate of " Mrs. Blodgett's 
boarding-house " at Liverpool, where, as Haw- 
thorne's son and biographer apologetically 
remarks, " the company, though not consisting 
of the most cultivated persons, imaginable, was 

N 



1 94 Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 

very hearty and genuine." Hawthorne seems 
to have done his best in good-fellowship at 
Liverpool, as at Brook Farm ; but his character 
was scarcely adapted for boarding in a nautical 
establishment, where the conversation "savoured 
of tar and bilge- water," and where sea-captains 
sat enveloped in a blue cloud of smoke. *' It is 
rather comfortless," he wrote in his English 
Notebook^ ** to think of home as three years off, 
and three thousand miles away. With what a 
sense of utter weariness, not fully realised till 
then, shall we sink down on our own threshold 
when we reach it." No doubt these words 
were written in a mood between jest and 
earnest, but there was, nevertheless, a prophetic 
truth in them which was only too literally ful- 
filled in the sadness of the last few years in his 
old home at Concord. 

Surprise has sometimes been expressed that 
the Puritan element in Hawthorne's character, 
together with the matter-of-fact system of 
American life, were not fatal obstacles to the 
production of highly imaginative work. In the 
Preface to The Blithedale Romance Hawthorne 
himself says that he chose the Brook Farm 
episode as the most romantic of his own life, 
and as offering a kind of enchanted atmosphere 
usually unavailable to an American novelist. 
Again, in the Preface to Transformation he 
remarks that Italy, where the scene of the story 



Nathaniel Hawthorne's Romances. 195 

is laid, was *' a sort of poetic or fairy precinct 
where actualities would not be so terribly in- 
sisted upon, as they are, and needs must be, in 
America.'* "No author,'* he adds, *' without a 
trial can conceive of the difficulty of writing a 
romance about a country where there is no 
shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no pic- 
turesque and gloomy wrong.*' Yet surely this 
idea is confuted by Hawthorne's own best 
writings. Nothing could be more truly poetical 
and imaginative than his admirable treatment 
of the prim Puritan villages, surrounded by the 
primeval forests where the witches were thought 
to assemble on dark nights ; the occasional 
glimpses into Indian character and customs ; 
the unexplored mountains, where *^the great 
carbuncle '* might possibly be sighted by some 
adventurous pilgrim ; the calm slow-flowing 
rivers, with their broad prairies, long meadow- 
grass, and yellow water-lilies. All these scenes 
he describes with a measured and meditative 
delight, which proves that his imagination drew 
more strength than he himself was aware of 
from the influence and traditions of his native 
soil. On the other hand, the Italian novel 
Transformation, is distinctly inferior in all 
essential qualities to its great American pre- 
decessors. Nor need we be surprised at this ; 
for books written in a foreign country, under 
the impulse of travel and passing observation 



196 Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 

rather than life-long intimacy, can seldom attain 
to the same excellence as those which are in- 
spired by the natural objects which the writer 
has known from childhood. There never lived 
a closer observer than George Eliot ; yet how 
slight and artificial is her Italian study, Romola^ 
elaborate as it is, compared with her simple, 
but immortal, delineations of homely English 
life. So, too, it was with Hawthorne. He set 
himself with great earnestness and considerable 
success to study Italian art ; yet, with all his 
pains in founding a romance on this subject, he 
failed to wield the same power as in his stories 
of Puritan life. 

It can hardly be doubted that The Scarlet 
Letter is the best of all Hawthorne's produc- 
tions. It is, indeed, one of the greatest of all 
works of fiction ; for in the whole range of 
English literature there are few things more 
tragic and more sublime than this simple tale. 
The resemblance of its general structure to 
that of Lockhart s Adam Blair has more than 
once been commented on ; it is also worth 
remark that The Scarlet Letter offers one or 
two very striking points of comparison with 
George Eliot's Adam Bede, The relation 
existing between the two guilty characters are 
almost identical in the two books ; a forbidden 
love ; a fatal secret ; a disgrace borne at first 
by the woman alone, but finally shared by- her 



Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 197. 

lover — these form a strange coincidence in the 
plans of the novels, which is maintained even in 
the names of the characters, Hester Prynne and 
Hester Sorrel, Arthur Dimmesdale and Arthur 
Donnithorne. But with the names and situa- 
tion of the characters the similarity ends ; for 
Hawthorne's beautiful and pathetic story is 
happily free from the sensational incidents which 
so sadly mar the latter ^^^xx. oi Adam Bede, In 
The Scarlet Letter the moral is not obtruded 
on the reader, yet the tone is altogether more 
lofty and spiritual, and aided by a power of 
poetical imagination of which George Eliot was 
wholly destitute. Nor can it be said that 
Hawthorne, on his side, was deficient in that 
keen insight and subtle analysis of character for 
which George Eliot is justly renowned. In- 
deed, this is one of the most striking features 
of 7 he Scarlet Letter ^ after the publication of 
which Hawthorne is said to have been often 
consulted by various criminals and ** spiritual 
invalids," who thus bore unconscious testimony 
to the keenness of his observation. 

Opinions vary as to the comparative merits 
of The House of the Seven Gables and The 
Blithedale Romance. The former certainly 
contains passages and scenes which equal any- 
thing which Hawthorne ever wrote, foremost 
among such being the description of the old 
house, which ** affected the beholder like a 



1 98 Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances, 

human countenance," with its acutely pointed 
gables and huge clusters of chimneys, but on 
the whole it is perhaps somewhat lacking in that 
mysterious glamour which Hawthorne usually 
contrived to throw over his romances, and it 
labours under the disadvantage of dealing with 
several generations of the same family, which 
renders the plot a little complicated and difficult 
to keep in mind. The Blithedale Romance is 
free from these blemishes, and it is hard to say 
which of the four chief characters in this book 
is most worthy of praise, Zenobia is one of 
the richest and most gorgeous studies ever pro- 
duced by novelist or poet, and there is some- 
thing scarcely less impressive in the delinea- 
tion of the inexplicable yet persistent curiosity 
which impels Miles Coverdale to fathom the 
mystery of her life. Readers of Godwin's 
novel, Caleb Williams, will not fail to. notice the 
singular resemblance between the strange 
infatuation which led Williams to pry into the 
terrible secret of his master and benefactor, 
Falkland, and those passages of The Blithedale 
Romance where Zenobia turns furiously to bay 
under the scrutiny of her too inquisitive friend. 
** You know not what you do ! It is dangerous, 
sir, believe me, to tamper thus with earnest 
human passions, out of your mere idleness and 
for your sport.*' In The Blithedale Romance, 
as in The Scarlet Letter and Transformation^ 



Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 199 



may be noticed Hawthorne's odd partiality for 
a quartette of characters ; and there is also a 
certain amount of resemblance between the 
characters of Zenobia and Priscilla in the one 
book and Miriam and Hilda in the other. 

Hawthorne's position among novelists is 
wholly unique, for though some of the short 
tales, by which he first became known as an 
author, bear a resemblance to those of Poe, his 
maturer style is absolutely his own. It is worthy 
of remark that the short prose story has flour- 
ished far more on American than on English 
soil. No first-rate English writers seem to 
have thought it worth their while to cultivate it 
to any great extent ; and though there are a 
few masterpieces of this style scattered here and 
there, as, for instance, in Dicken's books, it 
cannot be said to have reached any high degree 
of excellence in this country as it did in the 
hands of Hawthorne and Poe. Perhaps of all 
English writers De Quincey is, on the whole, 
the one who is least dissimilar to Hawthorne, 
and it is disappointing to learn that two prose- 
poets never found an opportunity of meeting, 
though Hawthorne often spoke with warm 
appreciation of De Quincey. In one point they 
were closely akin : they both had a keen sense 
of the impressiveness of a great city. No 
writer has done justice to the poetry of London 
life so fully as De Quincey ; and it is interest- 



200 Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 

^~^^^^^^^~ ~^~^^— ^~~^"" ~ ■■■"^^^^"^^■^ ■ 

ing to find that the London streets, with their 
countless thousands of unknown faces, exercised 
the same kind of spell over Hawthorne's 
imagination as over that of " the English 
opium-eater.'* " The bustle of London," he 
writes, in his English Note-Book, **may weary, 
but never can satiate me. By night London 
looks wild and dreamy, and fills me with a kind 
of pleasant dread." St. Paul's Cathedral, we 
are not surprised to find, had a special fascina- 
tion for Hawthorne. *' There cannot," he 
thinks, ** be anything else in its way so good in 
the world as just this effect of St. Paul's, in the 
very heart and densest tumult of London." 
He loved to go out and lose himself in the 
labyrinth of streets, in the same way that De 
Quincey used to roam at random through the 
network of crowded passages and alleys. In 
Wakefield y one of the Twice-told Tales y we have 
a fine example of Hawthorne's vivid perception 
of the mystery of a great city, where the next 
street may mean practically another world. 

Like De Quincey again, Hawthorne was a 
pure artist, being quite devoid of all those feel- 
ings which may be comprised under the name 
of enthusiasm. He was a quietist in his de- 
votion to literary leisure, a lotus-eater in his 
enjoyment of calm. His attitude towards 
idealism, and everything that savoured of 
transcendental philosophy, if not posititively 



Nathaniel Hawthornis R&mances. 201. 

hostile, was very far from being friendly, and 
was certainly in some cases contemptuous and 
narrow-minded. His inability to sympathise 
with those whose opinions are in conflict with 
the conventional laws of society appears unmis- 
takably in many parts of his biography, and is 
one of the few unpleasant traits in his character. 
" The sooner the sect is extinct the better, I 
think/' is the concluding sentence in his diary 
for a day in which he had visited an American 
Quaker establishment. He spoke of slavery as 
*' one of those evils which Divine Providence 
does not leave to be remedied by human con- 
trivance.'' That he should have been a member 
of the Socialistic circle at Brook Farm has 
always been, and must continue to be, a matter 
of wonder and astonishment ; and though none 
can regret an episode which furnished him with 
such good material for artistic treatment in 
The Blithedale Romance, it is evident that he 
was by nature incapable of doing justice to 
the higher aims of that ideal community. 
Very characteristic, too, is his criticism of 
Shelley in one of the most humorous stories of 
the Mosses from an Old Manse. Had he been 
able to understand more clearly the ideals 
which Shelley had in view, he could hardly 
have adopted, even in his humorous vein, the 
theory that the poet of Freethought, if he had 
lived to mature age, would have been reconciled 



202 Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 

to the orthodox faith, or, as he inimitably 
expresses it, would have written a defence of 
Christianity on the basis of the thirty-nine 
articles. It is obvious that when Hawthorne 
touches on great social questions, he does so 
merely from the artistic point of view ; there is 
no sign either in his life or writings that he felt 
anything more than an intellectual interest, or 
rather indifference, in all such inquiries. 

If it were possible for a moment that we could 
wish Hawthorne's genius to have been other than 
it was, we might be tempted to regret that he 
had not a dash of healthy enthusiasm. His 
admirers have been at great pains to show that 
there was nothing ** morbid " in his character 
or style of writing ; * but unless we are prepared 
to define the term in a sense altogether different 
from that in which it is generally understood, I 
do not think we can justly exonerate Hawthorne 
from the charge of morbidness. It is undeniable 
that his favourite study was that of decay rather 
than growth ; sickness rather than health : fail- 
ure rather than success ; in a word, the mortal- 
ity rather than the vitality of man ; and this is 
not the less true because he has scattered 
throughout his books, by way of contrast to the 
prevailing gloom, many delightful pictures of 
purity and happiness. But it need not be 

* Vide C. G. P. Lathrop's ** Study of Hawthorne," Boston, 
U. S., 1876. 



Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 203 

assumed that in saying Hawthorne's genius was 
of a sopiewhat morbid cast, we are in any sense 
disparaging it. The morbid has its place in 
literature as well as in nature, and it will be 
neither possible nor desirable to eliminate it al- 
together from the domain of art as long as 
mankind remains in its present condition. 

As I have already said, the most peculiar of 
all Hawthorne's artistic features is the filmy haze 
of mystery with which he so dexterously con- 
trives to invest his principal characters. This 
effect is partly gained by his strange habit of 
suggesting, rather than stating, his fanciful ideas, 
side by side with the option of some matter-of- 
fact explanation — a peculiarity which must have 
arrested the attention of all careful readers of 
his books ; as, for instance, in his description of 
the mysterious and fatal connection existing 
between Miriam and the Spectre of the Cata- 
combs ; or the unaccountably sudden manner 
of death hereditary in the Pyncheon family ; or 
the various surmises about the scarlet letter 
branded on Arthur Dimmesdale*s breast ; or the 
numerous references to witches and witchcraft ; or 
lastly, thebeliefthat Dr. Grimshawes huge spider 
was the devil in disguise, ** a superstition,'* as 
Hawthorne drily informs us, ** which deserves 
absolutely no countenance.*' It has been well 
remarked that Hawthorne possessed a power 
of abstracting himself, as it were, from his own 



20'4 Nathaniel Hawthorne's Romances. 

genius, and viewing himself, his family, his cir- 
cumstances of life, and his writings from an 
external standpoint, as if he were two persons, 
the one surveying and commenting on the other. 
Some of his short stories, notably Rappacinis 
Daughter — which is, perhaps, as fine a specimen 
of its author's power as anything he ever wrote 
— are cast in that half-imaginative, half scientific 
style, of which Poe was also a great exponent, 
wherein the charm consists in the subtle tran- 
sition from the real to the fanciful. Given the 
fact that certain flowers may exercise a strange 
and deleterious influence on the human senses, 
and we are led on, step by step, and stage by 
stage, without any particular revolt of our reason 
against the improbability of the tale, to the weird 
conception of a human being whose whole exist- 
ence is so impregnated with the breath of 
poisonous flowers that the poison itself has be- 
come life, and the antidote death. Here, too, 
may be noticed that mysterious attraction to the 
study of flowers in their relation to mankind, 
which appears in so many of Hawthorne's writ- 
ings ; as in the description of the effect produced 
on Miles Coverdaleby the splendid exotic which 
Zenobia wore in her hair ; the continual re- 
currence to the subject of the sanguinea san- 
guinissima in Septimius ; the many touches by 
which ** Alice's Posies " are wrought into the plot 
of The House of the Seven Gables \ and the beau-^ \, 



Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances, 20^ 

tiful references in The Dolliver Romance to the 
tropical plant in the old Doctor's garden, which 
was so connected with memories of his long-lost 
wife, who had once worn its flowers in her 
bosom, that it had become ** a kind of talisman 
to bring up her image.'* 

It need not be supposed, however, that Haw- 
thorne's romances are unreal or unnatural, be- 
cause they are surrounded by this halo of 
mystery. It is but a thin and transparent veil, 
which softens and tones down the broad glare 
of every-day life, yet at the same time leaves 
the outlines of the characters clear and well- 
defined. It is, in fact, what Wordsworth has 
described as 

" The light that never was on sea or land. 
The consecration, and the poet's dream." 

For Hawthorne's genius, if we would judge 
him aright, was something loftier and more in- 
spired than that of a mere prose-writer or 
novelist — he was rather a prose-poet, a drama- 
tist and lyrist in one. His books were in the 
highest degree works of imagination, to which 
was added the most elaborate and careful finish 
which their author was capable of bestowing on 
them. None but a real poet could have written 
that description of Hester Prynne's feelings 
when she sees her lover pass by "in the pro- 
cession of majestic and venerable fathers," with- 



2o6 Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 

out sign of recognition, "enveloped, as it were, 
in the rich music," while at the same time ** the 
heavy footstep of their approaching fate might 
be heard, nearer, nearer, nearer/' Not less 
poetical is the account of the storm which raged 
over the House of the Seven Gables after the 
death of its owner. Many poets have sung of 
the wind, but few have ever described it better 
than this. "It is not to be conceived before- 
hand what wonderful wind-instruments are these 
old timber mansions, and how haunted with the 
strangest noises ; which immediately begin to 
sing, and sigh, and sob, and shriek, and to smite 
with sledge-hammer, airy but ponderous, in some 
distant chamber, and to tread along the entries, 
as with stately footsteps, and to rustle up and 
down the staircase, as with silks miraculously- 
stiff, whenever the gale catches the house with a 
window open, and gets fairly into it." It is 
interesting to observe that this rare poetical 
quality was the one that remained with Haw- 
thorne to the end, even during that sad period 
of failing power and increasing dejection when 
he was no longer able to work out more than 
the disjointed fragments of a romance. There 
is scarcely in all his writings a more char- 
acteristic and imaginative passage than the des- 
cription in The Dolliver Romance of the aged 
doctor's patch-work gown, of which the original 
material was '* the embroidered front of his own 



Nathaniel Hawthorne s Romances. 207 

wedding waistcoat and the silken skirt of his 
wife's bridal attire," into which the spinsters 
of succeeding generations had *' quilted their 
duty and affection in the shape of patches upon 
patches, rose-colour, crimson, blue, violet, and 
green, and then (as their hopes faded, and their 
life kept growing shadier, and their attire took 
a sombre hue) sober grey, and great fragments 
of funereal black ; until the doctor could revive 
the memory of most things that had befallen 
him by looking at his patch-work gown as it 
hung upon a chair." 

It would be easy to multiply instances drawn 
from Hawthorne's works of this gift of brilliant 
imagination ; but enough has now been said. 
His rare and subtle intellect, high creative 
powers, and singularly pure and lucid style of 
expression alike qualify him to rank among the 
great masters of English fiction. 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

De Quincey is of those writers who win the 
approbation of the literary critic by the brilliancy 
of their style, but at the same time incur the 
censures of the moralist by their shortcomings 
in matters of conduct and teaching. Intellectual 
Hedonism, or lotus-eating, is the crime which 
has been generally laid to his charge, and to 
which he has himself in some measure pleaded 
guilty ; his indulgence in opium and his failure 
to complete any work of magnitude being re- 
garded as the direct result of that ** vein of 
effeminacy" by which, according to one of his 
critics, ** his mind was traversed." His philo- 
sophy has been described by Gilfillan* as nothing 
better than *' a sublime gossip '' ; while, in spite 
of the somewhat qualified blessing bestowed on 
him by the Quarterly Review^, earnest politicians, 
even on the Tory side, have usually looked 
with distrust on the transcendental Toryism of 

* "Gallery of Literary Portraits." 
t July i86i. 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 209 

which he was an exponent. It cannot be denied 
that there was a certain instability in De 
Quincey's character which partly justifies the 
adverse judgment so often passed on him ; great 
as his powers were, he seems to have been in- 
capable of turning them to any immediate 
practical purpose ; he was diffident, dilatory, un- 
businesslike. In him, if ever in mortal man, 

" The native hue of resolution 
Was sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought ; " 

and, as a consequence of this, he was utterly defi- 
cient in practical enterpriseand moral enthusiasm. 
*' At my time of life," he says (six-and-thirty 
years of age), " it cannot be supposed that I 
have much energy to spare ; and therefore let 
no man expect to frighten me, by a few hard 
words, into embarking any part of it upon 
desperate adventures of morality." But though 
the weakness of De Quincey in moral fibre is 
thus unhappily placed beyond dispute, there is 
nevertheless something rather ridiculous in the 
solemn and admonitory tone which many of his 
critics have thought it advisable to adopt in 
reference to his use of opium and his outspoken 
confession of that habit. A nation which for 
commercial purposes forces the import of opium 
on other countries, in spite of the protest of 
their native rulers, ought not to be squeamish 
on the subject of opium-eating, as discussed by 



2 1 o Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

one who has practised it ; and the position of 
De Quincey on this point is that of a literary 
Publican among Pharisaic critics. Nor is it 
at all clear that his censors are right in supposing 
that his intellectual productions were injuriously 
affected by his opium-eating. It is true that 
in his autobiographical writings he drew a 
terrible picture of " the pains of opium," and 
that in one passage he attributes to opium the 
failure of his desire to construct a great philo- 
sophical work which was to have been entitled 
De Emendatione Humani Intellectus ; " but on 
the other hand we may well doubt if De Quincey's 
genius was really suited to a labour of this kind, 
or if the work, supposing it had ever been ac- 
complished, would have been half as valuable 
as the Confessions of an Opium-eater^ and the 
Suspiria de Profundis, For, after all, it is 
surely a mere quibble and play upon words to 
say that De Quincey left no ** great work," as if 
great works were measured only by the number 
of their pages or the consistency of their philo- 
sophic teaching ! That is a very true and im- 
portant distinction, which De Quincey himself 
pointed out,* between the ''literature of know- 
ledge," whose function is merely to teach^ and 
the ** literature of power * which is able to move. 
It is to the latter class that De Quincey's prose- 

* Collected Works, viii. 3-n. 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 211 

poems belong, and though their mere bulk is 
not great, they may justly claim to be one of 
the supreme achievements of nineteenth-century 
literature, We can hardly doubt that De 
Quincey was partly thinking of his own case 
when, in his article on Professor Wilson, he 
defended his friend from this same charge of 
desultory writing. He admits that by increased 
energy and steadier application he might have 
produced an enormous and systematic book, but 
then he remembers the Greek proverb — " Big 
book, big nuisance,'* and concludes that the 
Professor did wisely in leaving his works in 
short and detached papers, instead of **con- 
glutinating them into one vast block." Let us 
therefore not grieve overmuch at the loss of the 
De Emendatione Humani IntellectuSy for we may 
rest assured that in his " impassioned prose " 
De Quincey has left us the best work of which 
he was capable ; and if it was through opium- 
eating that he expressed his thoughts in this 
form instead of in a philosophical treatise, it 
must be admitted that literature owes some- 
thing to opium. But most great writers have 
a habit of thus meditating and musing on some 
phantom work, beside and beyond their actual 
achievements ; witness the Eureka of Edgar 
Poe, and the Complete Theory of Mind with 
which Shelley hoped some day to enrich the 
philosophical world, — and the cautious critic 



2 1 2 Same Thoughts on De Quincey. 

will be on his guard against attributing too much 
importance to any such unrealized intentions. 

De Quincey's admirers have been at some 
pains to refute the fallacious yet rather pre- 
valent notion that he was only a sublime dreamer 
and prose-poet ; and certainly the wide scope 
of his genius is almost the first point that arrests 
the attention of a careful reader. From earliest 
youth he had read books of all sorts, with ex- 
traordinary avidity, and, as he himself tells us, 
could never enter a great library without '* pain 
and disturbance of mind," when he sorrowfully 
calculated that even a long life would only 
suffice for a perusal of a very small portion of 
existing literature. Aided by a marvellous 
memory, he thus accumulated a vast store of 
knowledge on a great variety of subjects, and 
being also possessed of a keen critical instinct, 
he was enabled to use his encyclopaedic treasures 
of information with great judgment and 
effect. Whether recording personal studies and 
anecdotes ; or giving his opinion on some 
weighty question of theology or political 
economy ; or throwing light on some point 
of classical learning, which had baffled the 
grammarians themselves ; or expounding the 
mysteries of casuistry, secret societies, and the 
'* dark sciences " of the Middle Ages ; or hold- 
ing forth on the elegancies of rhetoric and style ; 
or introducing English readers to German 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 2 1 3 

literature ; — in any and all of these subjects he 
was equally at his ease. Had he lived six 
centuries earlier, he would have been a mighty 
sage and alchemist ; living in the nineteenth 
century, he was the magazine-writer par ex- 
cellence^ and found a ready medium for his 
oracular utterances in the columns of Blackwood, 
Tait^ and the Old London magazine. In none 
of his essays, perhaps, is his multifarious learn- 
ing so apparent as in the Letters to a Young 
Man whose education has been neglected. How 
any such belated youth could be expected to 
follow De Quincey in the various branches and 
avenues of knowledge to which his attention is 
invited, must remain a matter of conjecture ; 
Lord Macaulay s schoolboy himself would have 
been scarcely equal to De Quincey's require- 
ments ; and it might even be conjectured that 
the ** Young Man '* in question was Lord 
Macaulay 's schoolboy, whose education, accord- 
ing to De Quincey*s severe standard, needed 
complete readjustment and revision. 

The juxtaposition in De Quincey's genius of 
imaginative and critical powers is a very 
noticeable and important characteristic ; in all his 
chief writings we see, as his biographer* has 
clearly pointed out, *' the logical or quantitative 
faculty, working alongside the dreaming, or 
purely abstractive faculty, without sense of 
* "Life of De Quincey," by H. A. Page. 1877. 



214 Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

discord." The grave and stately Suspiria de 
Profundis are thiis relieved by occasional flashes 
of humour and intellectual subtlety ; while the 
critical essays, on their part, are full of passages 
of high poetical power. Yet it must be admitted 
that De Quincey's chief and final claim to literary 
immortality must be based less on this analytic 
faculty, in which he has been equalled or ex- 
celled by many other writers, than on that 
peculiar phantasy, that meditative and imagin- 
ative spirit in which he has few rivals. His 
various writings are valuable chiefly in propor- 
tion to the presence of this spirit ; the vast range 
of learning and the discriminating judgment, 
indispensable though they were even in the 
elaboration of the prose-poems, are of secondary 
and subsidiary importance, and his contributions 
to literature in this department might have been 
supplied equally well from other sources ; but 
as a dreamer and prose-poet he occupies a 
position from which he is not likely to be 
deposed. 

The key to a correct appreciation of De 
Quincey s philosophical opinions is by no 
means difficult to discover. The venerable 
and the picturesque — these were the two 
qualities that profoundly influenced the emo- 
tional element in his nature, and enlisted his 
services as a general rule in the orthodox an4 
constitutional cause. He tells us that his mind, 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 215 

like that of Sir Thomas Browne, "almost 
demanded mysteries," and that his faith was 
that •* though a great man may, by a rare 
possibility, be an infidel, an intellect of the 
highest order must build upon Christianity." 
He heartily joined in the royalist sentiment that 
the Puritan creed *'was not a religion for a 
gentleman," since all sectarianism *'must appear 
spurious and mean in the eye of him who has 
been bred up in the grand classic forms of the 
Church of England or the Church of Rome." 
His politics, for the same reason, were those 
rather of a mystic than of one personally 
interested in the questions at stake ; and though 
his regard for rank and his veneration for 
solemn ceremonies and traditional form made 
him nominally a Tory, there are many indica- 
tions in his writings that he had a keen eye 
for any picturesque elements even in the 
Radicalism which he denounced. He warmly 
defended the characters of Milton and Crom- 
well from the aspersions cast on them by 
Royalist writers, and argued, in his essay on 
the Falsification of English History^ that in 
the seventeenth century democratic or popular 
politics were identical with patriotism, though 
he would not make the same admission con- 
cerning the events of his own age. But, 
however contemptuously earnest-minded re- 
formers may look on such half-hearted princi- 



2 1 6 Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

pies as these, none can deny De Quincey the 
merit of possessing one solid quality, which 
must be held to outweigh many political sins. 
Little liking as he had for the programme of 
modern democracy, his personal sympathies 
were at all times warm and sincere, for, owing 
to his own intimacy with poverty and suffer- 
ing, he was quite free from the least taint of 
Pharisaism or class prejudice. " Homo sum ; 
humani nihil a me alienum puto^' — this was 
his creed in all personal intercourse, whatever 
transcendental Toryism he might preach in his 
politics. ** Plain human nature," he says, **in 
its humblest and most homely apparel, was 
enough for me ; " and there are few nobler 
passages in his Confessions than those which 
show him in this humane aspect, whether comfort- 
ing the friendless child in the deserted house 
in Greek Street, or pacing Oxford Street in 
company with the outcast Ann, or haunting 
the London markets on a Saturday night and 
advising some poor family as to the best mode 
of laying out their scanty wages. How 
keenly he sympathised with the sufferings 
of the poor may be seen from a remark 
recorded by one who knew him in his 
later life.* "All that I have ever had 
enjoyment of in life, the charms of friendship 

* "Personal Recollections of De Quincey," by J. R. 
Findlay. i886. 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 217 

the smiles of women, and the joys of wine, 
seem to rise up to reproach me for my happi- 
ness when I see such misery, and think there is 
so much of it in the world." In one passage of 
his works he speaks of the brutal spirit of the 
world which can look " lightly and indulgently 
on the afflicting spectacle of female prostitution 
as it exists in London and in all great cities; " 
in another he rejoices at the interference of 
Parliament to amend the " ruinous social evil " 
of female labour in mines. Corporal punish- 
ment was another barbarism, utterly distasteful 
to his humane and gentle disposition ; he insists, 
as a great principle of social life, that "all cor- 
poral punishments whatsoever, and upon whom- 
soever inflicted, are hateful, and an indignity to 
our common nature," and adds that among the 
many cases of reforms destined to failure, *' this 
one, at least, never can be defeated, injured, or 
eclipsed." This noble pity for suffering human- 
ity was one of the most striking features of De 
Quincey's character, and ought not to be lightly 
passed over by those who would gain a clear 
impression of him. It will be found that he 
was not altogether the mere Hedonist that the 
reader is tempted at first sight to believe him. 

In his literary criticism, as in his political 
opinions, De Quincey was a worshipper of the 
grand and the sublime. He regarded Jeremy 
Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne as the richest 



2 1 8 Same Thoughts on De Quincey. 

and loftiest of English prose authors ; while in 
poetry he paid especial homage to the 
sovereignty of Shaksperes power, the sub- 
limity of Milton's conceptions, and Wordsworth's 
meditative beauty. His dislike of the eighteenth 
century school was so strong as to make him 
unjust in some of his criticisms, notably those 
on Pope and Samuel Johnson ; and though he 
is always interesting and acute in his literary 
judgments, and sometimes, as in his essay on 
Shelley, shows an instinctive insight and sym- 
pathy which was scarcely to be expected where 
there was such diversity of character between 
the critic and his subject, he was as a rule too 
wayward to be a very trustworthy authority. 
His love of paradox often led him into difficult 
or untenable positions ; as when he pronounced 
the sect of the Essenes to be identical with that 
of the early Christians ; or in his still more 
famous contention that Judas Iscariot was no 
traicor, but a single-hearted and over-eager en- 
thusiast who sought to precipitate his Master 
into action under the belief that he was aiming 
at an earthly and political kingdom ; or, once 
again, in his defence of the principle of duelling 
as one of the glories of modern times, tlie ab- 
sence of which in antiquity was a " foul blot " 
on the moral grandeur of the Greeks and 
Romans. Owing to his length of life De 
Quincey was able, when publishing the collected 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 219 

edition of his writings, to take a retrospect of 
his various criticisms, and in some cases, as in 
that of Dr. Parr, he had the satisfaction of 
pointing to the fulfilment of a literary prophecy. 
But there were some points, especially his de- 
preciation of Goethe, in which he must have 
felt that his early judgment was very far from 
being confirmed by the general verdict of time 
and public opinion. 

A belief has sometimes been expressed that 
De Quincey was capable of writing a great his- 
torical work, as, for instance, on the fall of the 
Roman Empire. " Especially was he qualified," 
says Gilfillan,* " by his superb classical learning, 
by the taste and tendency of his mind, by the 
graver graces of his diction, by his intimacy 
with the spirit and philosophy of Roman story, 
and by his belief in the Christian faith, for the 
proud task of writing the history of the Fourth 
Monarchy. Gibbon has not nearly exhausted 
the magnificent theme.'* It is worth noting, in 
connection with this opinion, that De Quincey 
himself referred to this epoch as the greatest of 
historical subjects ; *' On its own separate 
account," he wrote in his essay on The Ccesars, 
" the decline of this throne-shattering power 
must and will engage the foremost place among 
all historical reviews." But there are many 
reasons which make it difficult to believe that 

♦ " Gallery of Literary Portraits." 



220 Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

De Quincey was the right person for such a 
task. In the first place he had not the patience 
and accuracy of research which are indispens- 
able to the historian ; colossal as his memory 
was, his characteristic disdain of books of refer- 
ence must inevitably have led him astray. 
Then, again, he has no real belief in the sub- 
stantial truth of history, which, as he says, ** being 
built partly, and some of it altogether, upon 
anecdotage, must be a tissue of falsehoods," 
since all dealers in anecdotes are tainted with 
exaggeration. It would certainly have been 
vain to expect strict historical impartiality in a 
writer of De Quincey s emotional temperament, 
as may be inferred from his outspoken remarks 
on the rights and wrongs of Richard Bentley's 
long struggle with Trinity College, where after 
stating his own opinion that Bentley was in the 
right and the College in the wrong, he proceeds 
as follows : * — " But, even if not, I would pro- 
pose that at this time of day Bentley should be 
pronounced right, and his enemies utterly in the 
wrong. Whilst living, indeed, or whilst sur- 
viving in the persons of his friends and relations, 
the meanest of little rascals has a right to rigor- 
ous justice. But when he and his are bundled 
off to Hades, it is far better, and more consider- 
ate to the feelings of us public, that a little dog 
should be sacrificed than a great one ; for by 

* '* Essay on Richard Bentley." 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 221 

this means the current of one's sympathy with 
an illustrious man is cleared of ugly obstructions." 
This is no doubt partly humorous, yet it is really 
illustrative of the spirit of much of De Quincey 's 
work, and it suggests alarming reflections as to 
what would have been the fate of the '' little 
dogs " of the Roman Empire, under a historian 
whose conscience was so elastic and accommod- 
ating. He himself has divided history into 
three classes, the narrative, the philosophic, and 
the scenical — to the last-mentioned of which his 
own historical sketches undoubtedly belong. 
"Histories of this class," he says, ** proceed 
upon principles of selection, presupposing in the 
reader a general knowledge of the great cardin- 
al incidents, and bringing forward into especial 
notice those only which are susceptible of being 
treated with distinguished effect." On this 
principle De Quincey seized on the picturesque 
characters and striking scenes of the period of 
which he treated, and it is this that lends so 
great a charm to his historical essays on The 
CcesarSy Charlemagne^ Joan of Arc ^ The Revolt 
of the Tartars^ and other subjects. There is 
little doubt that in confining himself to this sort 
of ** scenical history" he gauged his own powers 
accurately. 

In his views of nature De Quincey was a 
mystic, like Hawthorne, rather than a close 
observer. He had wandered much in his early 



222 Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

days about the coach-roads and by-paths of 
England and Wales, but his knowledge of 
foreign lands was derived solely from books of 
travel, of which he was a great reader. In this 
way his mind had become familiar with ** those 
sublime natural phenomena *' to which there 
are so many references in his books — the sandy 
deserts of Africa ; the solitary steppes of Asia ; 
the silence of Lapland ; the Canadian forests ; 
the gorgeous sunsets of the West Indies ; and 
other similar scenes. It has been remarked* 
that he is fond^of using similitudes drawn from 
characteristics of animal life ; and in his account 
of the exhibitions in the Roman amphitheatre 
he enumerates with much zest the strange 
animals, *' specious miracles of nature brought 
together from arctic and from tropic deserts,*' 
then first presented to the gaze of the Roman 
populace. But this knowledge was certainly 
derived almost exclusively from book-lore ; 
indeed, he candidly admits in one of the foot- 
notes which he frequently appended to his 
writings that ** grosser ignorance than his own 
in most sections of natural history is not easily 
imagined," though he claims to be possessed of 
various odd fragments of this kind of know- 
ledge, gleaned here and there in his solitary 

* Cf. Chapter on De Quincey in Professor Minted 
Manual of Prose ZMeraAurt* 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 223 

rambles. In the Appendix to his Confessions 
he wrote a beautiful and pathetic account of the 
death of a little bird, which had been given to 
one of his children by a neighbour, but he was 
compelled to confess that he could not " orni- 
thologically describe or classify the bird," 
beyond the suggestion that it belonged to the 
family of finches, '* either a goldfinch, bullfinch, 
or at least something ending in inch.'' In fact. 
Dr. Johnson's famous remark about Goldsmith's 
zoological knowledge might be equally well 
applied to De Quincey, though it must be 
remembered to the credit of the latter that he 
did not attempt to write a History of Ani- 
mated Nature. His treatment of nature, as 
of history, was " scenical " ; he seized with 
rapid intuition on such majestic or picturesque 
features as struck his fancy in his reading or 
observation, and reproduced them with wonder- 
ful effect in the gorgeous imagery of his prose 
poems. 

But whatever doubts we may reasonably 
feel concerning De Quincey's capabilities as 
critic, historian, and naturalist, there can be no 
question of his supremacy in one branch of 
psychology which he made peculiarly his own 
— the study of dreams and certain solemn and 
mysterious phenomena of the human mind. 
The inclination to reverie, strongly ingrained 
in his nature, was quickened and fostered by 



224 Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

various circumstances and incidents of his 
boyhood, of which he has given us an account 
in his autobiographical sketches, love, grief, 
and solitude being foremost among these in- 
fluences ; while the habit of opium-eating, 
acquired in early manhood, gave an additional 
stimulus to the meditative and dreaming faculty. 
No writer has ever analysed and reproduced 
these mental phenomena so marvellously as 
De Quincey has done in his Suspiria de Pro- 
fundis, and many passages of his ConfesstonSy 
Autobiography^ and other works. His eye is 
extraordinarily keen to mark those sublime 
aspects and phases of external nature which 
exercise a potent though inexplicable influence 
on the thoughtful mind — the deep unbroken 
quietude of the early summer morning ; the 
solemn thoughts of death aroused by the pomp 
of the summer noon, or the hours immediately 
succeeding to sunset ; the sense of pathos 
excited by the appearance of the earliest spring 
flowers, or by the occasional brief resurrection 
of summer in the closing autumn days. ** It is 
all but inconceivable," he says, ** to men of 
unyielding and callous sensibilities, how pro- 
foundly others find their reveries modified and 
overruled by the external character of the 
immediate scene around them." His ear, too, 
was almost preternaturally sensitive to the in- 
fluences of sound ; whether in listening to the 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey, 225 

"pealing anthems" of some mountain stream, 
or to the music of Beethoven, or to the thrilling 
voice of Grassini, or to the melody of the 
Italian language talked by Italian women in the 
gallery of the Opera House. ** Impassioned 
dancing, sustained by impassioned music," so 
he tells us in his Autobiography, was the most 
interesting and affecting scene which the world 
could offer him, "exciting and sustaining the 
very grandest emotions of philosophic melan- 
choly to which the human spirit is open." 
Again, what writer has noted with such pro- 
found insight those grand and pathetic features 
of modern life, which escape the remark of less 
imaginative observers, such as the sense of 
mystery and immensity inspired by a great 
city, and the magnetic attraction it exercises on 
the surrounding country ; or the " glory of 
motion," revealed to De Quincey in the fiery 
speed, picturesque surroundings, and perfect 
organization of the English mail-coaches? Nor 
is this peculiar faculty of De Quincey's genius 
manifested only in the elaborate dream-fugues 
and opium-visions by which his name is best 
known ; but also in his record of many passing 
incidents amidst the wanderings and reveries 
of his early life, where themes otherwise trivial 
and commonplace are glorified and exalted by 
the power of this poetic gift. To take one 
instance out of many, there is the account given 



226 Some Thovghts ofi De Quincey. 



in the Confessions of De Quincey's departure 
from Wales, when he deemed it necessary to 
commence a London life — an important occa- 
sion, no doubt, in the career of a young man, 
but by no means a rare or unusual experience. 
Yet on this seemingly slight foundation how 
wonderful a structure is reared of '' tumultuous 
vision " and dim presentiment ! There is 
nothing in all his writings more impressive 
than the description of that calm, pensive> 
ghost-like November day, on which he set out 
on his journey with thoughts divided between 
the pastoral solitudes of Wales and the fierce 
tumults of London ; or the night of storm that 
followed, as, filled with ** heart-shaking reflec- 
tions," he waited at the Shrewsbury inn for the 
mail-coach that was to carry him from this 
point to his destination. It is this power of 
suggesting mysterious analogies between the 
realms of sense and the realms of spirit that 
constitutes De Quincey one of the supreme 
mystics of literature ; it is this that makes 
his best writings unique and imperishable, in 
spite of his desultory methods of workmanship 
and lack of philosophic steadfastness. ** Of 
this,'' he says, *' let every one be assured — that 
he owes to the impassioned books which he has 
read many a thousand more of emotions than 
he can consciously trace back to them. Dim 
by their origination, these, emotions yet arise 




Some Thoughts on De Quincey, 227 

in him, and mould him through life like for- 
gotten incidents of his childhood." A similar 
importance is claimed by De Quincey for the 
phenomena of dreams, as, being the ** one great 
tube through which man communicates with 
the shadowy/* on which account the dreaming 
faculty was to him a possession of the utmost 
dignity and consequence. He considered even 
Richter too elaborate and too artificial ** to 
realize the grandeur of the shadow " in his 
dream-studies ; and he complains of Sweden- 
borg as '* rending the veil " from the spiritual 
world, and carrying an earthy atmosphere **into 
regions which, by early connections with the 
sanctities of death, have a hold upon the rever- 
ential affections such as they seldom lose." 
There is a sublime pathos and intellectual gran- 
deur in De Quincey's visions which is not to 
be found in the fantastic conceptions of Cole- 
ridge or any other member of the opium-eating 
brotherhood of dreamers. 

Well adapted for powerful expression of this 
meditative psychology was De Quincey 's 
literary style. According to his own defin- 
ition of rhetoric as *' the art of aggrandizing 
and bringing out into strong relief, by means 
of various and striking thoughts, some aspect 
of truth which of itself is supported by no 
spontaneous feelings, and therefore rests upon 
artificial aids," he must himself be classed as 



228 Some Tlioughts on De Quincey. 

a rhetorician, the follower of Jeremy Taylor 
and Sir Thomas Browne, to whom he awards 
the spoha opima of English prose literature. 
Among the artificial aids of which he not 
unfrequently availed himself, the foremost were 
that ** elaborate stateliness," the use of which, 
provided that the occasion be seasonable, he 
expressly approves in his essay on Rhetoric; 
and that ornate and effective *' word-painting " 
which is a well-known feature of his writings. 
Though he was not in the strict sense a poet, — 
having even in his youthful days discovered that, 
possible as it would be for him to win a place 
among the soi-disant poets of the day, poetry 
was not his natural vocation, — he none the less 
devoted all a poet's care to the structure of his 
sentences, and the arrangement of his words, 
and felt all a poet's jealous regard for the 
sanctity of his mother-tongue. ** If there is 
one thing in this world," he says, *' which, next 
after the flag of his country and spotless 
honour, should be holy in the eyes of a young 
poet, it is the language of his country." It 
has been recorded of De Quincey * that he had 
a strange habit of smoothing and cleaning the 
greasy Scotch paper-money which offended 
his fastidious taste, and of polishing and bright- 
ening silver before he parted with it — a 
practice which may be regarded as typical of 

* Cf, Page's " Life of De Quincey," ii. 145. 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 229 

the indefatigable care lavished on his writings 
before he gave them currency. In his essay 
on Style he speaks with unusual severity of 
the carelessness and lazy indifference shown by 
most writers in the moulding of their sentences, 
adding, with obvious reference to himself, 
that he had known an author " so laudably 
fastidious in this subtle art as to have recast 
one chapter of a series no less than seventeen 
times ; so difficult was the ideal or model of 
excellence which he kept before his mind." 
Some readers, perhaps, will think that De 
Quincey employed the ornament derived from 
the inversion of words till it became almost an 
affectation : especially in such phrases as that 
in which he describes opium as *' an engine so 
awful of consolation and support ; *'* or, ** simply 
as an anodyne it was, under the mere coercion 
of pain the severest ; *' a form of sentence 
of which countless examples might be gathered 
from his writings. Nor is his own grammatical 
accuracy, strict as he was in theory, at all times 
unimpeachable ; his weakness consisting, as 
Professor Minto has pointed out, in a careless 
and ambiguous use of the participle, almost 
inexplicable in a writer of De Quincey 's 
calibre. An instance may be seen in the 
following sentence, from which the subordinate 
parts are omitted. *' I remember even yet that 
when first arrayed, at four years old, in 



230 Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

nankeen trousers, all my female friends filled 
my pockets with half-crowns," — a remark which, 
while testifying to the generosity of the ladies 
in question, seems to leave their age and 
costume open to grave misconstruction. But a 
more serious fault in De Quincey 's literary 
style, inasmuch as it was not, like that I have 
just mentioned, an occasional peccadillo, but a 
natural and ineradicable blemish, was his 
frequent discursiveness, springing no doubt 
from the immense stores of anecdote and 
general knowledge with which his mind was 
filled, and of which he was too often tempted to 
disburden himself. His so-called Autobio- 
graphy^ for example, does indeed contain a 
good deal of information about himself, but 
there is als© a vast amount of gossip on a 
variety of other subjects, one whole chapter 
being devoted to a description of an eccentric 
young woman whom De Quincey styles '* the 
Female InfideV and two others to a history of 
the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It might have 
been better for De Quincey if, like Demos- 
thenes, he had had a Phocion to ^* prune his 
periods." '* The body has an awfu sight o* 
words," was the remark of a Scotch cook who 
had been accustomed to receive her orders direct 
from De Quincey ; and if he used circumlocu- 
tion in the process of ordering dinner, he 
indulged in far wider flights in his literary and 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 231 

biographical essays. It is somewhat amusing 
to find him, in his article on Style^ insisting 
strongly on the ** vast importance of compres- 
sion/* and the "culture of an unwordy diction." 
I have already remarked on the co-existence 
in De Quincey's mind of the imaginative and 
logical faculties, once thought to be antagonistic 
and incompatible. A similar conjunction of 
opposite qualities is observable in his literary 
style, where a vein of broad humour, expressed 
in familiar and colloquial language, runs side 
by side with the gravity of his most solemn 
imagery, recalling the reader now and again 
from the phantasies of the dreamer to the actu- 
alities of every-day life, much in the same way 
as the '* knocking at the gate " in Macbeth, ac- 
cording to De Quincey*s own analysis, serves 
to re-establish, in the minds of the audience, the 
existence of the world in which they live, after 
a parenthesis of the world of darkness. There 
is, and will probably always be, considerable 
difference of opinion concerning the quality of 
De Quincey*s peculiar and characteristic humour, 
some of his critics being inclined to value it very 
highly, while others will allow him credit for 
nothing better than a *' sarcastic pungency" of 
a distinctly second rate order.* In this respect 
he certainly appears in quite a different character 
from that which is usually ascribed to the opium- 

*Cf. Westminster ReifieWy h^ui^ 1854. 



232 Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 

m- - - - -^ — ■ ■ 

eating visionary ; for his humour, if such it is to 
be called, so far from being pensive or subdued 
in tone, is keen, bold, and at times almost irre- 
pressible, harping persistently on the subject of 
merriment, and recurring to it again and again 
with manifest enjoyment. This humorous spirit 
is seen at its best and brightest in the essays on 
Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts^ 
Coleridge and Opium-eating^ Sortilege and As- 
trology^ or the tale of The Spanish Military 
Nun ; but it will be found scattered here and 
there throughout all De Quincey's writings, and 
it must be admitted that it occasionally degene- 
rates into something very like mere boisterous 
slang and badinage, offending the taste of the 
reader, whose mind has perhaps been just at- 
tuned to the stately rhythm of some highly- 
wrought passage, by the bathos of the sudden 
descent from the celestial to the commonplace. 
But such cases are the exception ; for as a rule 
De Quincey's humour is not only delightful in 
itself, but does good service by acting as a foil 
to his higher qualities. 

In one of his many footnotes De Quincey has 
given an excellent definition of genius as dis- 
tinguished from talent. '* Talent," he asserts, 
**is intellectual power of every kind, which acts 
and manifests itself by and through the will and 
the active forces. Genius, as the verbal origin 
implies, is that much rarer species of intellectual 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey^ 233 

power which is derived from the genial nature 
— from the spirit of suffering and enjoyment, 
from the spirit of pleasure and pain, as organised 
more or less perfectly ; and this is independent 
of will. It is a function of the passive nature." 
Judged by this distinction — and it would be 
difficult to find a sounder one — De Quincey 
must always be classed with men of genius 
rather than with men of talent, for the spon- 
taneity of his writings is fully as apparent as 
their power. Though he was largely indebted 
to the accession of learning and literary taste, 
and to the external embellishments of his bril- 
liant rhetorical fancy, yet his success was prim- 
arily due to his imaginative subtlety, to the 
inspiration that is inborn, rather than to the 
culture that can be acquired. Thus it was that 
though his life was cast in an age of mighty 
intellects, with some of whom he was himself 
closely associated, he preserved to the end his 
own individuality and independence, setting the 
stamp of his peculiar genius clearly and unmis- 
takably upon every page of his works. The 
only writer of this century, or indeed of any 
century, to whom he bears much affinity, is Cole- 
ridge; and even here the similarity, though very 
striking as regards the general disposition and 
mode of life, does not extend to the manner of 
thought and expression. A reader of De Quinr 

cey's biographical essay on Coleridge* must be 

*Vor. ii. "Uke Poets." 



234 Sovte Thoughts on De Quincey. 

struck by the fact that much of what he says of 
Coleridge's dreamy nature and dilatory habits 
would apply equally well to himself ; and in both 
cases the use of opium brought an aggravation 
of the evil. The same resemblance may be 
traced in the prodigious memory, great conver- 
sational powers, and general literary scope of 
the two authors. De Quincey has himself re- 
marked that he *'read for thirty years in the 
same track as Coleridge — that track in which 
few of any age will ever follow us, such as Ger- 
man metaphysicians, Latin schoolmen, thauma- 
turgic Platonists, religious mystics." Finally, 
the same reproach has been commonly urged 
against both, of having wasted their fine powers 
in trivial and desultory occupations, and of hav- 
ing left no great monumental work. It has 
been my endeavour to show that this assertion, 
as regards De Quincey at any rate, is only true 
in the very limited sense that he instinctively 
preferred to throw his writings into the form of 
short papers, rather than bulky volumes. Those 
who condemn him on this account should re- 
member Addisons satire on the tendency to 
estimate the value of books by their quantity 
rather than their quality. *' I have observed,"* 
he says, '^ that the author of ^.folio^ in all com- 
panies and conversations, sets himself above the 
author of a quarto ; the author of a quarto above 

* Spectator^ No. 529. 



Some Thoughts on De Quincey. 235 

the author of an octavo, and so on, by a gradual 
descent and subordination to an author in 
twenty 'fours. In a word, authors are usually- 
ranged in company after the same manner as 
their works are upon a shelf/* It is only by the 
adoption of some such criterion as this, that De 
Quincey's masterpieces can be ruled out of the 
category of great works. 



THE END 



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