Imagens das páginas
[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

It is frequently said that periodical writing fritters away a man's intellectual energy; that, instead of concentrating himself on some congenial task, devoting a whole lifetime to it, and leaving it as a permanent possession of the race, a man is tempted to write hastily, and without sufficient meditation; that, in fact, we have articles now, more or less brilliant, whereas, under different circumstances, we might have had books. All this kind of conjecture is exceedingly unprofitable. Doubtless, under different circumstances, the results of a man's working would have been different more or less; but it does not of necessity follow that the results would have been more valuable. A'man's power in literature, as in everything else, is best measured by bis accomplishment, just as his stature is best measured by his coffin. It is a mistake to suppose that a man's largest work, or the work on which he has expended the greatest labour, is on that account his best. Literary history is full of instances to the contrary. When mental powers are equal, that is surest of immortality which occupies the least space; scattered forces are then concentrated, like garden roses gathered into one bouquet, or English beauty in the boxes at the opera. Leisure and life-long devotion to a task have often resulted in tediousness. Large works are often too heavy for posterity to carry. We have too many "Canterbury Tales." The "Faery Queen would be more frequently read if it consisted of only one book, and Spenser's fame would stand quite as high as it does. Milton's poetical genius is as apparent in "Comus" and "Lycidas" as in his great epic, which most people have thought too long. Addison's "Essay in Westminster Abbey" is more valuable than his tragedy. Macaulay's Essays on Clive and Warren Hastings are as brilliant, powerful, and instructive, as any single chapter of his "History"-with the additional advantage, that they can be read at a sitting. Certain readers have been found to admire Wordsworth's "We are Seven" more than the "Excursion." Coleridge talked of spending fifteen years on the construction of a great poem; had he done so, it is doubtful whether his reader would have

[ocr errors]

* Abridged from "Last Leaves: Sketches and Criticisms," By Alexander Smith, author of "A Life-Drama," " 'Dreamthorp," etc. W. P. Nimmo, London and Edinburgh.

[ocr errors]

preferred it to the "Ancient Mariner." From all this, it may be inferred that, if writers, instead of "frittering themselves away" in periodicals, had devoted themselves to the production of important works, the world would not have been much the wiser, and their reputations not one whit higher. Besides, there are many men more brilliant than profound— who have more élan than persistence-who gain their victories, like the Zouaves, by a rapid dash;-and these do their best in periodicals.

The Essay has always been a favourite literary form with magazine writers. Of the most delightful kind of essay-writing, that of personal delineation, which chronicles moods, which pursues vagrant lines of thought, Montaigne is the earliest and, as yet, the greatest example.

When the Essay became a popular literary form in England, the conditions of things had altogether changed since Montaigne's day. The Frenchman was a solitary man, with but few books except the classics, given to self-communion, constantly writing to please himself, constantly mastered by whim, constantly, as it were, throwing the reins upon the neck of impulse. He had no public, and consequently he did not stand in awe of one. The country was convulsed, martyrs were consumed at the stake, country-houses were sacked, the blood of St Bartholomew had been spilt, the white plume of Navarre was shining in the front of battle. Amid all this strife and turmoil, the melancholy and middle-aged gentleman sat in his château at Montaigne, alone with his dreams. No one disturbed him; he disturbed no one. He lived for himself and for thought.

When Steele and Addison appeared as English Essayists, they appeared under totally different circumstances. The four great English poets had lived and died. The Elizabethan drama, which had arisen in Marlowe, had set in Shirley. The comedy of Wycherley and Congreve, in which pruriency has become phosphorescent, was in possession of the stage. Dryden had taken immortal yengeance on his foes. Fragments of Butler's wit sparkled like grains of salt in the conversation of men of fashion. English literature was already.rick; there was a whole world of books and of accumulated ideas to work upon. Then a public had arisen; there was the "town," idle, rich, eagerly inquiring after every new thing, most anxious to be amused. Montaigne was an egotist, because he had little but himself to write about; certainly he had nothing nearly so interesting. He pursued his speculations as he liked, because he had no one to interfere with him. He was actor and audience in one. The English Essayists, on the other hand, had the English world to act upon. They had its leisure to amuse, its follies to satirise; its books, music, and pictures, its public amusements, its whole social arrangements, to comment upon, to laugh at, to praise. As a consequence, their Essays are not nearly so instructive as Montaigne's, although they are equally sparkling and amusing. We are introduced to a fashionable world, to beaux with rapiers and lace ruffles, and belles with patches on their cheeks; there are drums and card-tables, and sedan-chairs and links. The satire in the Spectator is conventional; it concerns itself with the circumference of a lady's hoops, or the air with which a coxcomb carries his cocked hat beneath his arm.

[ocr errors]

The Essayists of the eighteenth century were satirists of society, and of that portion of society alone which sneered in the coffee-houses and buzzed round the card-tables of the Metropolis. They did not deal with crimes, but with social foibles; they did not recognise passions in that

fashionable world; they did not reverence women, they took off their hats and uttered sparkling compliments to the "fair." Theirs was a well-dressed world, and they liked it best when seen by candle-light. They were fine gentlemen, and they carried into literature their finegentleman airs. They dressed carefully; and they were as careful of the dress of their thoughts as of their persons. Their epigrams were sharp and polished as their rapiers; they said the bitterest things in the most smiling way; their badinage was nothing if not gentlemanly. Satire went about with a coloured plume of fancy in his cap. They brought style to perfection. But even then one could see that a change was setting in. A poor gentleman down at Olney, under the strong power of the world to come, was feeding his hares, and writing poems of a religious cast, yet with a wonderful fascination, as if of some longforgotten melody, haunting their theological peculiarities, which drew many to listen. Up from Ayrshire to Edinburgh came Burns, with black, piercing eyes, with all his songs about him, as if he had reft a county of the music of its groves; in due time a whole wild Paris was yelling round the guillotine where noble heads were falling. Europe became a battle-field; a new name rose into the catalogue of kings; and when the Essayists of our own century began to write, the world had changed, and they had changed with it.

The Essayists who wrote in the early portion of the present century -Lamb, Hazlitt, and Hunt-are not only different from their predecessors as regards mental character; they differ from them also in the variety of the subjects that engaged their attention. And this difference arises not only from the greater number of subjects attracting public interest in their day, but also from the immensely larger audience they had to address. They were not called upon to write for the town, but for town and country both. Society was reading in all its ranks, and each rank had its special interests. The Essayists' subject-matter had been vastly enlarged; great actors had trod the boards; great painters had painted; the older poets had come into fashion; outside nature had again reappeared in literature. The Essayist could weave an allegory, or criticise, or describe, or break a social enormity on the wheel, or explode an ancient prejudice, with the certainty of always finding a reader. Lamb, the most peculiarly gifted of the three-who thought Fleet Street worth all Arcadia-confined himself for the most part to the Metropolis, its peculiar sights, its beggars, its chimney-sweeps, its theatres, its old actors, its book-stalls; and on these subjects he discourses with pathos and humour curiously blended. For him the past had an irresistible attraction; he loved old books, old houses, old pictures, old wine, old friends. His mind was like a Tudor mansion, full of low-roofed, wainscoted rooms, with pictures on the walls of men and women in antique garb; of tortuous passages and grim crannies in which ghosts might lurk; with a garden with plots of shaven grass, and processions of clipped yews, and a stone dial in the corner, with a Latin motto anent the flight of time carved upon it, and a drowsy sound of rooks heard sometimes from afar. He sat at the India House with the heart of Sir Thomas Browne beating beneath his sables. He sputtered out puns among his friends from the saddest heart. He laughed that he might not weep. Misery, which could not make him a cynic nor a misanthrope, made him a humorist. And knowing, as now we all know from Serjeant Talfourd,

the tragic shadow which darkened his home for years, one looks upon the portrait of Elia with pity tempered with awe. Lamb extended the sphere of the Essay, not so much because he dealt with subjects which till his day had been untouched, but because he imported into that literary form a fancy, humour, and tenderness, which resembled the fancy, humour, and tenderness of no other writer. The manifestations of these qualities were as personal and peculiar as his expression of countenance, the stutter in his speech, his habit of punning, his love of black-letter and whisky-punch. His Essays are additions to English literature, just as Potosi silver was an addition to the wealth of Europe. Whatever his subject, it becomes interpenetrated by his pathetic and fanciful humour, and is thereby etherealised-made poetic. Some of his Essays have all the softness and remoteness of dreams. They are not of the earth, earthy. They are floating islands asleep on serene shadows in a sea of humour. The "Essay on Roast Pig" breathes a divine aroma. The sentences hush themselves around the youthful chimney-sweep-" the innocent blackness," asleep in the nobleman's sheets-as they might around the couch of the sleeping princess. Gone are all his troubles-the harsh call of his master, sooty knuckles rubbed into tearful eyes, his brush, his call from the chimney-top. Let the poor wretch sleep! And then, Lamb's method of setting forth his fancies is as peculiar as the fancies themselves. He was a modern man only by the accident of birth; and his style is only modern by the same accident. It is full of the quaintest convolutions and doublings back upon itself; and ever and again a paragraph is closed by a sentence of unexpected rhetorical richness, like heavy golden fringe depending from the velvet of the altar cover a trick which he learned from the "Religio Medici," and the "Urn Burial." As a critic, too, Lamb takes a high place. His "Essay on the Genius of Hogarth" is a triumphant vindication of that master's claim to the highest place of honour in British art; and in it he sets. forth the doctrine, that a picture must not be judged by externals of colour, nor by manipulative dexterity-valuable as these unquestionably are-but by the number and value of the thoughts it contains; a doctrine which Mr Ruskin has borrowed, and has used with results.

Leigh Hunt was a poet as well as an Essayist, and he carried his poetic fancy with him into prose, where it shone like some splendid bird of the tropics among the sober-coated denizens of the farm-yard. He loved the country; but one almost suspects that his love for the country might be resolved into likings for cream, butter, strawberries, sunshine, and hayswathes to tumble in. If he did not, like Wordsworth, carry in his heart the silence of wood and fell, he at all events carried a gillyflower jauntily in his button-hole. He was neither a town poet and essayist, nor a country poet and essayist; he was a mixture of both-a suburban poet and essayist. Above all places in the world, he loved Hampstead. His Essays are gay and cheerful as suburban villas,—the piano is touched within, there are trees and flowers outside, but the city is not far distant, prosaic interests are ever intruding, visitors are constantly dropping in. His Essays are not poetically conceived; they deal -with the exception of that lovely one on the "Death of Little Children," where the fancy becomes serious as an angel, and wipes the tears of mothers as tenderly away as an angel could-with distinctly mundane. and commonplace matters; but his charm is in this, that be the subject


what it may, immediately troops of fancies search land and sea and the range of the poets for its adornment-just as, in the old English villages on May morning, shoals of rustics went forth to the woods and brought home hawthorns for the dressing of door and window. Hunt is always cheerful and chatty. He defends himself against the evils of life with pretty thoughts. He believes that the world is good, and that men and women are good too. He would, with a smiling face, have offered a flower to a bailiff in the execution of his duty, and been both hurt and astonished if that functionary had proved dead to its touching suggestions. His Essays are much less valuable than Lamb's, because they are neither so peculiar, nor do they touch the reader so deeply; but they are full of colour and wit.

Hazlitt, if he lacked Lamb's quaintness and ethereal humour, and Hunt's fancifulness, possessed a robust and passionate faculty which gave him a distinct place in the literature of his time. His feelings were keen and deep. The French Revolution seemed to him-in common with Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge-in its early stages, an authentic angel rising with a new morning for the race upon its forehead; and when disappointment came, and his friends sought refuge in the old order of things, he, loyal to his youthful hope, stood aloof, hating them almost as renegades, and never ceasing to give utterance to his despair.

These men wrote in a period of unexampled literary activity, and in the thick of stupendous events: Scott, Moore, and Byron were writing their poems; Napoleon was shaking the thrones of the Continent. Looked back upon from our days, the conquests of the poets seem nearly as astonishing as the conquests of the emperor. He passed from victory to victory, and so did they. When quieter days came, and when the great men of the former generation had either passed away or were reposing on the laurels they had earned so worthily, other writers arose to sustain the glory of the English Essay. The most distinguished were Lord Macaulay and Carlyle. They began to write about the same time-Lord Macaulay's Essay on Milton appearing in the Edinburgh Review in 1825, and Carlyle's first Essay on Jean Paul Richter in the same Review in 1827. The writings of these men were different from those of their predecessors. Carlyle's primary object was to acquaint his countrymen with the great men whom Germany had recently produced, and to interest them in the productions of German genius. His plans widened, however, as his way cleared; and the eye which had looked into the heart of Goethe, Schiller, and Richter, was in course of time turned on the Scottish Burns, the English Johnson, and the French Voltaire. It is not too much to say that he has produced the best critical and biographical Essays of which the English language can boast. And it is in the curious mixture of criticism and biography in these papers-for the criticism becomes biography, and the biography criticism that their chief charm and value consist. Carlyle is an artist, and he knows exactly what and how much to put into his picture. He has a wonderful eye for what is characteristic. He searches after the secret of a man's nature, and he finds it frequently in some trivial anecdote or careless saying, which another writer would have passed unnoticed, or tossed contemptuously aside. He hunts up every scrap of information, and he frequently finds what he wants in a corner. He judges a man by his poem, and the poem by the man. To his eye, they

« AnteriorContinuar »