Still, however, we must allow that there is great delicacy and hesitation to be used in employing the weapon of ridicule on any point connected with religion. Some passages occur in the work before us for which the writer's sole apology must be the uncontroulable disposition to indulge the peculiarity of his vein of humour—a temptation which even the saturnine John Knox was unable to resist either in narrating the martyrdom of his friend Wisheart or the assassination of his enemy Beatson, and in the impossibility of resisting which his learned and accurate biographer has rested his apology for this mixture of jest and earnest.
"There are writers," he says (rebutting the charge of Hume against Knox), "who can treat the most sacred subjects with a levity bordering on profanity. Must we at once pronounce them profane, and is nothing to be set down to the score of natural temper inclining them to wit and humour? The pleasantry which Knox has mingled with his narrative of his (Cardinal Beatson's) death and burial is unseasonable and unbecoming. But it is to be imputed not to any pleasure which he took in describing a bloody scene, but to the strong propensity which he had to indulge his vein of humour. Those who have read his history with attention must have perceived that he is not able to check this even on the very serious occasions."—Macrie's Life of Knox, p. 147.
Indeed Dr. Macrie himself has given us a striking instance of the indulgence which the Presbyterian clergy, even of the strictest persuasion, permit to the vis comica. After describing a polemical work as "ingeniously constructed and occasionally enlivened with strokes of humour," he transfers, to embellish his own pages, (for we can discover no purpose of edification which the tale serves), a ludicrous parody made by an ignorant parish-priest on certain words of a Psalm, too sacred to be here quoted. Our own innocent pleasantry cannot, in this instance, be quite reconciled with that of the learned biographer of John Knox, but we can easily conceive that his authority may be regarded in Scotland as decisive of the extent to which a humourist may venture in exercising his wit upon scriptural expressions without incurring censure even from her most rigid divines.
It may however be a very different point how far the author is entitled to be acquitted upon the second point of indictment. To use too much freedom with things sacred is a course much more easily glossed over than that of exposing to ridicule the persons of any particular sect. Every one knows the reply of the great Prince of Conde to Louis XIV when this monarch expressed his surprize at the clamour excited by Moliere's Tartuffe, while a blasphemous farce called Scaramouche Hermite was performed without giving any scandal: "C'est parceque Scaramouche ne jouoit que le ciel et la religion, dont les devots se soucioient beaucoup moins que d'eux-memes." We believe, therefore, the best service we can do our author in the present case is to shew that the odious part of his satire applies only to that fierce and unreasonable set of extra-presbyterians, whose zeal, equally absurd and cruel, afforded pretexts for the severities inflicted on non-conformists without exception, and gave the greatest scandal and offence to the wise, sober, enlightened, and truly pious among the Presbyterians.
The principal difference betwixt the Cameronians and the rational presbyterians has been already touched upon. It may be summed in a very few words.
After the restoration of Charles II episcopacy was restored in Scotland, upon the unanimous petition of the Scottish parliament. Had this been accompanied with a free toleration of the presbyterians, whose consciences preferred a different mode of church-government, we do not conceive there would have been any wrong done to that ancient kingdom. But instead of this, the most violent means of enforcing conformity were resorted to without scruple, and the ejected presbyterian clergy were persecuted by penal statutes and prohibited from the exercise of their ministry. These rigours only made the people more anxiously seek out and adhere to the silenced preachers. Driven from the churches, they held conventicles in houses. Expelled from cities and the mansions of men, they met on the hills and deserts like the French Huguenots. Assailed with arms, they repelled force by force. The severity of the rulers, instigated by the episcopal clergy, increased with the obstinacy of the recusants, until the latter, in 1666, assumed arms for the purpose of asserting their right to worship God in their own way. They were defeated at Pentland; and in 1669 a gleam of common sense and justice seems to have beamed upon the Scottish councils of Charles. They granted what was called an indulgence (afterwards repeatedly renewed) to the presbyterian clergy, assigned them small stipends, and permitted them to preach in such deserted churches as should be assigned to them by the Scottish Privy Council. This "indulgence," though clogged with harsh conditions and frequently renewed or capriciously recalled, was still an acceptable boon to the wiser and better part of the presbyterian clergy, who considered it as an opening to the exercise of their ministry under the lawful authority, which they continued to acknowledge. But fiercer and more intractable principles were evinced by the younger ministers of that persuasion. They considered the submitting to exercise their ministry under the controul of any visible authority as absolute erastianism, a desertion of the great invisible and divine Head of the church, and a line of conduct which could only be defended, says one of their tracts, by nullifidians, time-servers, infidels, or the Archbishop of Canterbury. They held up to ridicule and abhorrence such of their brethren as considered mere toleration as a boon worth accepting. Every thing, according to these fervent divines, which fell short of re-establishing presbytery as the sole and predominating religion, all that did not imply a full restoration of the Solemn League and Covenant, was an imperfect and unsound composition between God and mammon, episcopacy and prelacy. The following extracts from a printed sermon by one of them, on the subject of "soul-confirmation," will at once exemplify the contempt and scorn with which these high-flyers regarded their more sober-minded brethren, and serve as a specimen of the homely eloquence with which they excited their followers. The reader will probably be of opinion that it is worthy of Kettledrummle himself, and will serve to clear Mr. Jedediah Cleishbotham of the charge of exaggeration.
There is many folk that has a face to the religion that is in fashion, and there is many folk, they have ay a face to the old company, they have a face for godly folk, and they have a face for persecutors of godly folk, and they will be daddies bairns and minnies bairns both; they will be prelates bairns and they will be malignants bairns and they will be the people of God's bairns. And what think ye of that bastard temper? Poor Peter had a trial of this soupleness, but God made Paul an instrument to take him by the neck and shake it from him: And O that God would take us by the neck and shake our soupleness from us.
Therefore you that keeps only your old job-trot, and does not mend your pace, you will not wone at soul-confirmation, there is a whine (i.e., a few) old job-trot, and does not mend your pace, you will not wone at soul-confirmation, there is a whine old job-trot ministers among us, a whine old job-trot professors, they have their own pace, and faster they will not go; O therefore they could never wine to soul-confirmation in the mettere of God. And our old job-trot ministers is turned curates, and our old job-trot professors is joined with them, and now this way God has turned them inside out, and has made it manifest and when their heart is hanging upon this braw, I will not give a gray groat for them and their profession both.
The devil has the ministers and professors of Scotland, now in a sive, and O as he sifts, and O as he riddles, and O as he rattles, and O the chaff he gets; And I fear there be more chaff nor there be good corn, and that will be found among us or all be done: but the soul-confirmed man leaves ever the devil at two more, and he has ay the matter gadged, and leaves ay the devil in the lee side,—Sirs O work in the day of the cross.
The more moderate presbyterian ministers saw with pain and resentment the lower part of their congregation, who had least to lose by taking desperate courses, withdrawn from their flocks, by their more zealous pretenders to purity of doctrine, while they themselves were held up to ridicule, old jog trot professors and chaff-winnowed out and flung away by Satan. They charged the Cameronian preachers with leading the deluded multitude to slaughter at Bothwell, by prophesying a certainty of victory, and dissuading them from accepting the amnesty offered by Monmouth. "All could not avail," says Mr. Law, himself a presbyterian minister, "with McCargill, Kidd, Douglas, and other witless men amongst them, to hearken to any proposals of peace. Among others that Douglas, sitting on his horse, and preaching to the confused multitude, told them that they would come to terms with them, and like a drone was always droning on these terms with them: 'they would give us a half Christ, but we will have a whole Christ,' and such like impertinent speeches as these, good enough to feed those that are served with wind and not with the sincere milk of the word of God." Law also censures these irritated and extravagant enthusiasts, not only for intending to overthrow the government, but as binding themselves to kill all that would not accede to their opinion, and he gives several instances of such cruelty being exercised by them, not only upon straggling soldiers whom they shot by the way or surprized in their quarters, but upon those who, having once joined them, had fallen away from their principles. Being asked why they committed these cruelties in cold blood, they answered, 'they were obliged to do it by their sacred bond.' Upon these occasions they practised great cruelties, mangling the bodies of their victims that each man might have his share of the guilt. In these cases the Cameronians imagined themselves the direct and inspired executioners of the vengeance of heaven. Nor did they lack the usual incentives of enthusiasm. Peden and others among them set up a claim to the gift of prophecy, though they seldom foretold any thing to the purpose. They detected witches, had bodily encounters with the enemy of mankind in his own shape, or could discover him as, lurking in the disguise of a raven, he inspired the rhetoric of a Quaker's meeting. In some cases, celestial guardians kept guard over their field-meetings. At a conventicle held on the Lomond-hills, the Rev. Mr. Blacader was credibly assured, under the hands of four honest men, that at the time the meeting was disturbed by the soldiers, some women who had remained at home, "clearly perceived as the form of a tall man, majestic-like, stand in the air in stately posture with the one leg, as it were, advanced before the other, standing above the people all the time of the soldiers shooting." Unluckily this great vision of the Guarded Mount did not conclude as might have been expected. The divine sentinel left his post too soon, and the troopers fell upon the rear of the audience, plundered and stripped many, and made eighteen prisoners.
But we have no delight to dwell either upon the atrocities or absurdities of a people whose ignorance and fanaticism were rendered frantic by persecution. It is enough for our present purpose to observe that the present Church of Scotland, which comprizes so much sound doctrine and learning, and has produced so many distinguished characters, is the legitimate representative of the indulged clergy of the days of Charles II, settled however upon a comprehensive basis. That after the revolution, it should have succeeded episcopacy as the national religion, was natural and regular, because it possessed all the sense, learning, and moderation fit for such a change, and because among its followers were to be found the only men of property and influence who acknowledged presbytery. But the Cameronians continued long as a separate sect, though their preachers were bigoted and ignorant, and their hearers were gleaned out of the lower ranks of the peasantry. Their principle, so far as it was intelligible, asserted that paramount species of presbyterian church-government which was established in the year 1648, and they continued to regard the established church as erastian and time-serving, because they prudently remained silent upon certain abstract and delicate topics, where there might be some collision between the absolute liberty asserted by the church and the civil government of the state. The Cameronians, on the contrary, disowned all kings and government whatsoever, which should not take the Solemn League and Covenant; and long retained hopes of re-establishing that great national engagement, a bait which was held out to them by all those who wished to disturb the government during the reign of William and Anne, as is evident from the Memoirs of Ker of Kersland, and the Negotiations of Colonel Hooke with the Jacobites and disaffected of the year.
A party so wild in their principles, so vague and inconsistent in their views, could not subsist long under a free and unlimited toleration. They continued to hold their preachings on the hills, but they lost much of their zeal when they were no longer liable to be disturbed by dragoons, sheriffs, and lieutenants of Militia.—The old fable of the Traveller's Cloak was in time verified, and the fierce sanguinary zealots of the days of Claverhouse sunk into such quiet and peaceable enthusiasts as Howie of Lochgoin, or Old Mortality himself. It is, therefore, upon a race of sectaries who have long ceased to exist, that Mr. Jedediah Cleishbotham has charged all that is odious, and almost all that is ridiculous, in his fictitious narrative; and we can no more suppose any moderate presbyterian involved in the satire, than we should imagine that the character of Hampden stood committed by a little raillery on the person of Ludovic Claxton, the Muggletonian. If, however, there remain any of those sectaries who, confining the beams of the Gospel to the Goshen of their own obscure synagogue, and with James Mitchell, the intended assassin, giving their sweeping testimony against prelacy and popery, The Whole Duty of Man and bordles, promiscuous dancing and the Common Prayer-book, and all the other enormities and backslidings of the time, may perhaps be offended at this idle tale, we are afraid they will receive their answer in the tone of the revellers to Malvolio, who, it will be remembered, was something a kind of Puritan: "Doest thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?—Aye, by Saint Anne, and ginger will be hot in the mouth too."
ON LEIGH HUNT
[From The Quarterly Review, January, 1816]
The Story of Rimini, a Poem. By LEIGH HUNT. fc. 8vo. pp. 111. London, 1816.
A considerable part of this poem was written in Newgate, where the author was some time confined, we believe for a libel which appeared in a newspaper, of which he is said to be the conductor. Such an introduction is not calculated to make a very favourable impression. Fortunately, however, we are as little prejudiced as possible on this subject: we have never seen Mr. Hunt's newspaper; we have never heard any particulars of his offence; nor should we have known that he had been imprisoned but for his own confession. We have not, indeed, ever read one line that he has written, and are alike remote from the knowledge of his errors or the influence of his private character. We are to judge him solely from the work now before us; and our criticism would be worse than uncandid if it were swayed by any other consideration.
The poem is not destitute of merit; but—and this, we confess, was our main inducement to notice it—it is written on certain pretended principles, and put forth as a pattern for imitation, with a degree of arrogance which imposes on us the duty of making some observations on this new theory, which Mr. Leigh Hunt, with the weight and authority of his venerable name, has issued, ex cathedra, as the canons of poetry and criticism.
These canons Mr. Hunt endeavours to explain and establish in a long preface, written in a style which, though Mr. Hunt implies that it is meant to be perfectly natural and unaffected, appears to us the most strange, laboured, uncouth, and unintelligible species of prose that we ever read, only indeed to be exceeded in these qualities by some of the subsequent verses; and both the prose and the verse are the first eruptions of this disease with which Mr. Leigh Hunt insists upon inoculating mankind.
Mr. Hunt's first canon is that there should be a great freedom of versification—this is a proposition to which we should have readily assented; but when Mr. Hunt goes on to say that by freedom of versification he means something which neither Pope nor Johnson possessed, and of which even "they knew less than any poets perhaps who ever wrote," we check our confidence; and, after a little consideration, find that by freedom Mr. Hunt means only an inaccurate, negligent, and harsh style of versification, which our early poets fell into from want of polish, and such poets as Mr. Hunt still practise from want of ease, of expression, and of taste.
"License he means, when he cries liberty."
Mr. Hunt tells us that Dryden, Spenser and Ariosto, Shakespeare and Chaucer (so he arranges them), are the greatest masters of modern versification; but he, in the next few sentences, leads us to suspect that he really does not think much more reverently of these great names than of Pope and of Johnson; and that, if the whole truth were told, he is decidedly of opinion that the only good master of versification, in modern times, is—Mr. Leigh Hunt.
Dryden, Mr. Hunt thinks, is apt to be artificial in his style; or, in other words, he has improved the harmony of our language from the rudeness of Chaucer, whom Mr. Hunt (in a sentence which is not grammar, p. xv) says that Dryden (though he spoke of and borrowed from him) neither relished nor understood. Spenser, he admits, was musical from pure taste, but Milton was only, as he elegantly expresses it, "learnedly so." Being learned in music, is intelligible, and, of Milton, true; but what can Mr. Hunt mean by saying that Milton had "learnedly a musical ear"? "Ariosto's fine ear and animal spirits gave a frank and exquisite tone to all he said"—what does this mean?— a fine ear may, perhaps, be said to give, as it contributes to, an exquisite tone; but what have animal spirits to do here? and what, in the matter of tones and sounds, is the effect of frankness? We shrewdly suspect that Mr. Hunt, with all his affectation of Italian literature, knows very little of Ariosto; it is clear that he knows nothing of Tasso. Of Shakespeare he tells us, "that his versification escapes us because he over-informed it with knowledge and sentiment," by which it appears (as well, indeed, as by his own verses), that this new Stagyrite thinks that good versification runs a risk of being spoiled by having too much meaning included in its lines.
To wind up the whole of this admirable, precise, and useful criticism by a recapitulation as useful and precise, he says, "all these are about as different from Pope as the church organ is from the bell in the steeple, or, to give him a more decorous comparison, the song of the nightingale from that of the cuckoo."—p. xv.
Now we own that what there is so indecorous in the first comparison, or so especially decorous in the second, we cannot discover; neither can we make out whether Pope is the organ or the bell—the nightingale or the cuckoo; we suppose that Mr. Hunt knows that Pope was called by his contemporaries the nightingale, but we never heard Milton and Dryden called cuckoos; or, if the comparison is to be taken the other way, we apprehend that, though Chaucer may be to Mr. Hunt's ears a church organ, Pope cannot, to any ear, sound like the church bell.
But all this theory, absurd and ignorant as it is, is really nothing to the practice of which it effects to be the defence.
Hear the warblings of Mr. Hunt's nightingales.
A horseman is described—
The patting hand, that best persuades the check, And makes the quarrel up with a proud neck, The thigh broad pressed, the spanning palm upon it, And the jerked feather swaling in the bonnet.—p. 15.
Knights wear ladies' favours—
Some tied about their arm, some at the breast, Some, with a drag, dangling from the cap's crest.—p. 14.
Paulo pays his compliments to the destined bride of his brother—
And paid them with an air so frank and bright, As to a friend appreciated at sight; That air, in short, which sets you at your ease, Without implying your perplexities, That what with the surprize in every way, The hurry of the time, the appointed day,— She knew not how to object in her confusion.—p. 29.
The meeting of the brothers, on which the catastrophe turns, is excellent: the politeness with which the challenge is given would have delighted the heart of old Caranza.
May I request, Sir, said the prince, and frowned, Your ear a moment in the tilting ground? There, brother? answered Paulo with an air Surprized and shocked. Yes, brother, cried he, there. The word smote crushingly.—p. 92.
Before the duel, the following spirited explanation takes place:
The prince spoke low, And said: Before you answer what you can, I wish to tell you, as a gentleman, That what you may confess— Will implicate no person known to you, More than disquiet in its sleep may do.—p. 93.
Paulo falls—and the event is announced in these exquisite lines:
Her aged nurse— Who, shaking her old head, and pressing close Her withered lips to keep the tears that rose—p. 101.
"By the way," does Mr. Leigh Hunt suppose that the aged nurses of Rimini weep with their mouths? or does he mistake crying for drivelling?—In fact, the young lady herself seems to have adopted the same mode of weeping:
With that, a keen and quivering glance of tears Scarce moves her patient mouth, and disappears.
But to the nurse.—She introduces the messenger of death to the princess, who communicates his story, in pursuance of her command—
Something, I'm sure, has happened—tell me what— I can bear all, though you may fancy not. Madam, replied the squire, you are, I know, All sweetness—pardon me for saying so. My Master bade me say then, resumed he, That he spoke firmly, when he told it me,— That I was also, madam, to your ear Firmly to speak, and you firmly to hear,— That he was forced this day, whether or no, To combat with the prince;—'—p. 103.
The second of Mr. Hunt's new principles he thus announces:
With the endeavour to recur to a freer spirit of versification, I have joined one of still greater importance—that of having a free and idiomatic cast of language. There is a cant of art as well as of nature, though the former is not so unpleasant as the latter, which affects non-affectation.—(What does all this mean?)—But the proper language of poetry is in fact nothing different from that of real life, and depends for its dignity upon the strength and sentiment of what it speaks. It is only adding musical modulation to what a fine understanding might actually utter in the midst of its griefs or enjoyments. The poet therefore should do as Chaucer or Shakespeare did,—not copy what is obsolete or peculiar in either, any more than they copied from their predecessors,—but use as much as possible an actual, existing language,—omitting of course mere vulgarisms and fugitive phrases, which are the cant of ordinary discourse, just as tragedy phrases, dead idioms, and exaggerations of dignity, are of the artificial style, and yeas, verilys, and exaggerations of simplicity, are of the natural.—p. xvi.
This passage, compared with the verses to which it preludes, affords a more extraordinary instance of self-delusion than even Mr. Hunt's notion of the merit of his versification; for if there be one fault more eminently conspicuous and ridiculous in Mr. Hunt's work than another, it is,—that it is full of mere vulgarisms and fugitive phrases, and that in every page the language is—not only not the actual, existing language, but an ungrammatical, unauthorised, chaotic jargon, such as we believe was never before spoken, much less written.
In what vernacular tongue, for instance, does Mr. Hunt find a lady's waist called clipsome (p. 10)—or the shout of a mob "enormous" (p. 9)—or a fit, lightsome;—or that a hero's nose is "lightsomely brought down from a forehead of clear-spirited thought" (p. 46)—or that his back "drops" lightsomely in (p. 20). Where has he heard of a quoit-like drop—of swaling a jerked feather—of unbedinned music (p. 11)—of the death of leaping accents (p. 32)—of the thick reckoning of a hoof (p. 33)—of a pin-drop silence (p. 17)—a readable look (p. 20)—a half indifferent wonderment (p. 37)—or of
Boy-storied trees and passion-plighted spots,—p. 38.
Ships coming up with scattery light,—p. 4.
or of self-knowledge being
Cored, after all, in our complacencies?—p. 38.
We shall now produce a few instances of what "a fine understanding might utter," with "the addition of musical modulation," and of the dignity and strength of Mr. Hunt's sentiments and expressions.
A crowd, which divided itself into groups, is—
—the multitude, Who got in clumps——p. 26.
The impression made on these "clumps" by the sight of the Princess, is thus "musically" described:
There's not in all that croud one gallant being, Whom, if his heart were whole, and rank agreeing, It would not fire to twice of what he is,—p. 10.
"Dignity and strength"—
First came the trumpeters— And as they sit along their easy way, Stately and heaving to the croud below.—p. 12.
This word is deservedly a great favourite with the poet; he heaves it in upon all occasions.
The deep talk heaves.—p. 5. With heav'd out tapestry the windows glow.—p. 6. Then heave the croud.—id. And after a rude heave from side to side.—p. 7. The marble bridge comes heaving forth below.—p. 28.
The youth smiles up, and with a lowly grace, Bending his lifted eyes—p. 22.
This is very neat:
No peevishness there was— But a mute gush of hiding tears from one, Clasped to the core of him who yet shed none.—p. 83.
The heroine is suspected of wishing to have some share in the choice of her own husband, which is thus elegantly expressed:
She had stout notions on the marrying score.—p. 27.
This noble use of the word score is afterwards carefully repeated in speaking of the Prince, her husband—
—no suspicion could have touched him more, Than that of wanting on the generous score.—p. 48.
But though thus punctilious on the generous score, his Highness had but a bad temper,
And kept no reckoning with his sweets and sours.—p. 47.
This, indeed, is somewhat qualified by a previous observation, that—
The worst of Prince Giovanni, as his bride Too quickly found, was an ill-tempered pride.
How nobly does Mr. Hunt celebrate the combined charms of the fair sex, and the country!
The two divinest things this world HAS GOT, A lovely woman in a rural spot!—p. 58.
A rural spot, indeed, seems to inspire Mr. Hunt with peculiar elegance and sweetness: for he says, soon after, of Prince Paulo—
For welcome grace, there rode not such another, Nor yet for strength, except his lordly brother. Was there a court day, or a sparkling feast, Or better still—to my ideas, at least!— A summer party in the green wood shade.—p. 50.
So much for this new invented strength and dignity: we shall add a specimen of his syntax:
But fears like these he never entertain'd, And had they crossed him, would have been disdain'd.—p. 50.
* * * * *
After these extracts, we have but one word more to say of Mr. Hunt's poetry; which is, that amidst all his vanity, vulgarity, ignorance, and coarseness, there are here and there some well-executed descriptions, and occasionally a line of which the sense and the expression are good— The interest of the story itself is so great that we do not think it wholly lost even in Mr. Hunt's hands. He has, at least, the merit of telling it with decency; and, bating the qualities of versification, expression, and dignity, on which he peculiarly piques himself, and in which he has utterly failed, the poem is one which, in our opinion at least, may be read with satisfaction after GALT'S Tragedies.
Mr. Hunt prefixes to his work a dedication to Lord Byron, in which he assumes a high tone, and talks big of his "fellow-dignity" and independence: what fellow-dignity may mean, we know not; perhaps the dignity of a fellow; but this we will say, that Mr. Hunt is not more unlucky in his pompous pretension to versification and good language, than he is in that which he makes, in this dedication, to proper spirit, as he calls it, and fellow-dignity; for we never, in so few lines, saw so many clear marks of the vulgar impatience of a low man, conscious and ashamed of his wretched vanity, and labouring, with coarse flippancy, to scramble over the bounds of birth and education, and fidget himself into the stout-heartedness of being familiar with a LORD.
[From The Quarterly Review, October, 1816]
Shakespeare's Himself Again! or the Language of the Poet asserted; being a full and dispassionate Examen of the Readings and Interpretations of the several Editors. Comprised in a Series of Notes, Sixteen Hundred in Number, illustrative of the most difficult Passages in his Plays—to the various editions of which the present Volumes form a complete and necessary Supplement. By ANDREW BECKET. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. 730. 1816.
If the dead could be supposed to take any interest in the integrity of their literary reputation, with what complacency might we not imagine our great poet to contemplate the labours of the present writer! Two centuries have passed away since his death—the mind almost sinks under the reflection that he has been all that while exhibited to us so "transmographied" by the joint ignorance and malice of printers, critics, etc., as to be wholly unlike himself. But—post nubila, Phoebus! Mr. Andrew Becket has at length risen upon the world, and Shakespeare is about to shine forth in genuine and unclouded glory!
What we have at present is a mere scantling of the great work in procinctu—[Greek: pidakos ex ieraes oligaelizas]—sixteen hundred "restorations," and no more! But if these shall be favourably received, a complete edition of the poet will speedily follow. Mr. Becket has taken him to develop; and it is truly surprizing to behold how beautiful he comes forth as the editor proceeds in unrolling those unseemly and unnatural rags in which he has hitherto been so disgracefully wrapped:
Tandem aperit vultum, et tectoria prima reponit,— Incipit agnosci!—
Mr. Becket has favoured us, in the Preface, with a comparative estimate of the merits of his predecessors. He does not, as may easily be conjectured, rate any of them very highly; but he places Warburton at the top of the scale, and Steevens at the bottom: this, indeed, was to be expected. "Warburton," he says, "is the best, and Steevens the worst of Shakespeare's commentators"; (p. xvii) and he ascribes it solely to his forbearance that the latter is not absolutely crushed: it not being in his nature, as he magnanimously insinuates, "to break a butterfly upon a wheel!" Dr. Johnson is shoved aside with very little ceremony; Mr. Malone fares somewhat better; and the rest are dismissed with the gentle valediction of Pandarus to the Trojans—"asses, fools, dolts! chaff and bran! porridge after meat!" With respect to our author himself, it is but simple justice to declare, that he comes to the great work of "restoring Shakespeare"—not only with more negative advantages than the unfortunate tribe of critics so cavalierly dismissed, but than all who have aspired to illumine the page of a defunct writer since the days of Aristarchus. As far as we are enabled to judge, Mr. Becket never examined an old play in his life:—he does not seem to have the slightest knowledge of any writer, or any subject, or any language that ever occupied the attention of his contemporaries; and he possesses a mind as innocent of all requisite information as if he had dropped, with the last thunderstone, from the moon.
"Addison has well observed, that 'in works of criticism it is absolutely necessary to have a clear and logical head.'" (p.v.) In this position, Mr. Becket cheerfully agrees with him; and, indeed, it is sufficiently manifest, that without the internal conviction of enjoying that indispensable advantage, he would not have favoured the public with those matchless "restorations"; a few specimens of which we now proceed to lay before them. Where all are alike admirable, there is no call for selection; we shall therefore open the volumes at random, and trust to fortune.
"Hamlet. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time?"
This reading, Mr. Becket says, he cannot admit; and he says well: since it appears that Shakespeare wrote—
"For who would bear the scores of weapon'd time?"
using scores in the sense of stripes. Formerly, i.e., when Becket was in his sallad days, he augured, he says, that the true reading was—
—"the scores of whip-hand time."
Time having always the whip-hand, the advantage; but he now reverts to the other emendation; though, as he modestly hints, the epithet whip-hand (which he still regards with parental fondness) will perhaps be thought to have much of the manner of Shakespeare.—Vol. i, p. 43.
"Horatio.—While they, distill'd Almost to jelly with the act of fear, Stand dumb, and speak not to him!"
We had been accustomed to find no great difficulty here: the words seemed, to us, at least, to express the usual effect of inordinate terror—but we gladly acknowledge our mistake. "The passage is not to be understood." How should it, when both the pointing and the language are corrupt? Read, as Shakespeare gave it—
—"While they bestill'd Almost to gelee with the act. Of fear Stand dumb," &c.—that is, petrified (or rather icefied) p. 13.
"Lear. And my poor fool is hang'd!"
With these homely words, which burst from the poor old king on reverting to the fate of his loved Cordelia, whom he then holds in his arms, we have been always deeply affected, and therefore set them down as one of the thousand proofs of the poet's intimate knowledge of the human heart. But Mr. Becket has made us ashamed of our simplicity and our tears. Shakespeare had no such "lenten" language in his thoughts; he wrote, as Mr. Becket tells us,
"And my pure soot is hang'd!"
Poor, he adds, might be easily mistaken for pure; while the s in soot (sweet) was scarcely discernible from the f, or the t from the l.—p. 176.
We are happy to find that so much can be offered in favour of the old printers. And yet—were it not that the genuine text is always to be preferred—we could almost wish that the critic had left their blunder as it stood.
"Wolsey.—that his bones May have a tomb of orphans' tears wept on them."
A tomb of tears is ridiculous. I read—a coomb of tears—a coomb is a liquid measure containing forty gallons. Thus the expression, which was before absurd, becomes forcible and just.—vol. ii, p. 134.
It does indeed!
"Sir Andrew. I sent thee six-pence for thy leman (mistress): had'st it?" Read as Shakespeare wrote: "I sent thee sixpence for thy lemma"—lemma is properly an argument, or proposition assumed, and is used by Sir Andrew Aguecheek for a story.—p. 335.
"Viola. She pined in thought, And with a green and yellow melancholy."—Correct it thus:
"She pined in thought And with agrein and hollow melancholy."—p. 339.
"Iago. I have rubb'd this young quat almost to the sense, And he grows angry"—
that is, or rather was, according to our homely apprehension, I have rubb'd this pimple (Roderigo) almost to bleeding:—but, no; Mr. Becket has furnished us not only with the genuine words, but the meaning of Shakespeare—
I have fubb'd this young quat—Quat, or cat, appears to be a contraction of cater-cousin—and this reading will be greatly strengthened when it is remembered that Roderigo was really the intimate of Iago.—p. 204.
In a subsequent passage, "I am as melancholy as a gibb'd cat"—we are told that cat is not the domestic animal of that name, but a contraction of catin, a woman of the town. But, indeed, Mr. Becket possesses a most wonderful faculty for detecting these latent contractions and filling them up. Thus,
"Parolles. Sir, he will steal an egg out of a cloister." Read (as Shakespeare wrote), "Sir, he will steal an Ag (i.e., an Agnes) out of a cloister." Agnes is the name of a woman, and may easily stand for chastity.—p. 325.
"Carter. Prithee, Tom, put a few flocks in Cut's saddle; the poor beast is wrung in the withers out of all cess."
Out of all cess, we used to think meant, in vulgar phraseology, out of all measure, very much, &c.—but see how foolishly!
Cess is a mere contraction of cessibility, which signifies the quality of receding, and may very well stand for yielding, as spoken of a tumour.—p. 5.
"Hamlet. A cry of players."
This we once thought merely a sportive expression for a company of players, but Mr. Becket has undeceived us—"Cry (he tells us) is contracted from cryptic, and cryptic is precisely of the same import as mystery."—p. 53. How delightful it is when learning and judgment walk thus hand in hand! But enough—
—"the sweetest honey Is loathsome in its own deliciousness"—
and we would not willingly cloy our readers. Sufficient has been produced to encourage them—not perhaps to contend for the possession of the present volumes, though Mr. Becket conscientiously affirms, in his title-page, that "they form a complete and necessary supplement to every former edition"—but, with us, to look anxiously forward to the great work in preparation.
Meanwhile we have gathered some little consolation from what is already in our hands. Very often, on comparing the dramas of the present day (not even excepting Mr. Tobin's) with those of Elizabeth's age, we have been tempted to think that we were born too late, and to exclaim with the poet—
"Infelix ego, non illo qui tempore natus, Quo facilis natura fuit; sors O mea laeva Nascendi, miserumque genus!" &c.
but we now see that unless Mr. Andrew Becket had also been produced at that early period, we should have derived no extraordinary degree of satisfaction from witnessing the first appearance of Shakespeare's plays, since it is quite clear that we could not have understood them.
One difficulty yet remains. We scarcely think that the managers will have the confidence, in future, to play Shakespeare as they have been accustomed to do; and yet, to present him, as now so happily "restored," would, for some time at least, render him caviare to the general. We know that Livius Andronicus, when grown hoarse with repeated declamation, was allowed a second rate actor, who stood at his back and spoke while he gesticulated, or gesticulated while he spoke. A hint may be borrowed from this fact. We therefore propose that Mr. Andrew Becket be forthwith taken into the pay of the two theatres, and divided between them. He may then be instructed to follow the dramatis personae of our great poet's plays on the stage, and after each of them has made his speech in the present corrupt reading, to pronounce aloud the words as "restored" by himself. This may have an awkward effect at first; but a season or two will reconcile the town to it; Shakespeare may then be presented in his genuine language, or, as our author better expresses it, be HIMSELF AGAIN.
ON MOXON'S SONNETS
[From The Quarterly Review, July, 1837]
Sonnets by EDWARD MOXON. Second Edition. London, 1837.
This is quite a dandy of a book. Some seventy pages of drawing-paper— fifty-five of which are impressed each with a single sonnet in all the luxury of type, while the rest are decked out with vignettes of nymphs in clouds and bowers, and Cupids in rose-bushes and cockle-shells. And all these coxcombries are the appendages of, as it seems to us, as little intellect as the rings and brooches of the Exquisite in a modern novel. We shall see presently, by what good fortune so moderate a poet has found so liberal a publisher.
We are no great admirers of the sonnet at its best—concurring in Dr. Johnson's opinion that it does not suit the genius of our language, and that the great examples of Shakespeare and Milton have failed to domesticate it with us. It seems to be, even in master hands, that species of composition which is at once the most artificial and the least effective, which bears the appearance of the greatest labour and produces the least pleasure. Its peculiar and unvaried construction must inevitably inflict upon it something of pedantry and monotony, and although some powerful minds have used it as a form for condensing and elaborating a particular train of thought—an Iliad in a nutshell—yet the vast majority of sonneteers employ it as an economical expedient, by which one idea can be expanded into fourteen lines—fourteen lines into one page—and, as we see, fifty-four pages into a costly volume.
The complex construction, which at first sight seems a difficulty, is, in fact, like all mechanism, a great saving of labour to the operator. A sonnet almost makes itself, as a musical snuff-box plays a tune, or rather as a cotton Jenny spins twist. When a would-be poet has collected in his memory a few of what may have struck him as poetical ideas, he puts them into his machine, and after fourteen turns, out comes a sonnet, or—if it be his pleasure to spin out his reminiscences very fine—a dozen sonnets.
Mr. Moxon inscribes as a motto on his title-page four lines of Mr. Wordsworth's vindication of his own use of the sonnet-form—
In truth, the prison, into which we doom Ourselves, no prison is: and hence to me, In sundry moods 'twas pastime to be bound Within the sonnet's scanty plot of ground.
Yes, Mr. Moxon, to him perhaps, but not to every one—the "plot of ground" which is "scanty" to an elephant is a wilderness to a mouse; and the garment in which Wordsworth might feel straitened hangs flabby about a puny imitator. There seems no great modesty in the estimate which Mr. Moxon thus exhibits of his own superior powers, but we fear there is, at least, as much modesty as truth—for really, so far from being "bound" within the narrow limit of the sonnet, it seems to us to be
—a world too wide For his shrunk shank.
Ordinary sonneteers, as we have said, will spin a single thought through the fourteen lines. Mr., Moxon will draw you out a single thought into fourteen sonnets:—and these are his best—for most of the others appear to us mere soap bubbles, very gay and gaudy, but which burst at the fourteenth line and leave not the trace of an idea behind. Of two or three Mr. Moxon has kindly told us the meaning, which, without that notice, we confess we should never have guessed.
* * * * *
Another of the same genus—though, he had just told us
My love I can compare with nought on earth—
is like nought on earth we ever read but Dean Swift's song of similes. I will prove, he says, that
A swan— A fawn— An artless lamb— A hawthorn tree— A willow— A laburnum— A dream— A rainbow— Diana— Aurora— A dove that singeth— A lily,—and finally, Venus herself! —I in truth will prove These are not half so fair as she I love.
Sonnet iii, p. 43.
Such heterogeneous compliments remind us of Shacabac's gallantry to Beda in Blue Beard: "Ah, you little rogue, you have a prettier mouth than an elephant, and you know it!"—A fawn-coloured countenance rivalling in fairness a laburnum blossom, seems to us a more dubious type of female beauty than even an elephant's mouth.
Love, it may be said, has carried away better poets and graver men than Mr. Moxon seems to be, into such namby-pamby nonsense; but Mr. Moxon is just as absurd in his grief or his musings, as in his love.
When he hears a nightingale—"sad Philomel!"—he concludes that the bird was originally created for no other purpose than to prophesy in Paradise the fall of man, or, as he chooses to collocate the words,
Prophetic to have mourned of man the fall,—p. 9.
but he does not tell us what she has been doing ever since.
When he sees two Cumberland streams—the Brathay and Rothay—flowing down, first to a confluence, and afterwards to the sea, he fancies "a soul-knit pair," man and wife, mingling their waters and gliding to their final haven—
in kindred love, The haven Contemplation sees above!
Below, he would—following his allegory—have said; but rhyme forbade— and allegories are not so headstrong on the banks of the Brathay as on those of the Nile.
A sonnet on Thomson's grave is a fine specimen of empty sounds and solid nonsense:—
Whene'er I linger, Thomson, near thy tomb, Where Thamis—
"Classic Cam" will be somewhat amazed to hear his learned brother called Thamis—
Where Thamis urges his majestic way, And the Muse loves at twilight hour to stray, I think how in thy theme ALL seasons BLOOM;—
What, all four?—autumn, nay, winter—blooming?
What heart so cold that of thy fame has heard, And pauses not to gaze upon each scene.
We are inclined to be very indulgent to what is called a confusion of metaphors, when it arises from a rush of ideas—but when it is produced by an author's having no idea at all, we can hardly forgive him for equipping the Heart with eyes, ears, and legs:—he might just as well have said that on entering Twickenham church to visit the tomb, every Heart would take off its hat, and on going out again would put its hand in its pockets to fee the sexton.
And pauses not to gaze upon each scene That was familiar to thy raptured view, Those walks beloved by thee while I pursue, Musing upon the years that intervene—
Why this line intervenes or what it means we do not see—it seems inserted just to make up the number—
Methinks, as eve descends, a hymn of praise To thee, their bard, the sister Seasons raise!
That is, as we understand it, ALL the Seasons meet together on one or more evenings of the year, to sing a hymn to the memory of Thompson. This simultaneous entree of the Four Seasons would be a much more appropriate fancy for the opera stage than for Twickenham meadows.
Such are the tame extravagances—the vapid affectations—the unmeaning mosaic which Mr. Moxon has laboriously tesselated into fifty and four sonnets. If he had been—as all this childishness at first led us to believe—a very young man—we should have discussed the matter with him in a more conciliatory and persuasive tone; but we find that he is, what we must call, an old offender. We have before us two little volumes of what he entitles poetry—one dated 1826, and the other 1829—which, though more laughable, are not in substance more absurd than his new production. From the first of these we shall extract two or three stanzas of the introductory poem, not only on account of their intrinsic merit, but because they state, pretty roundly, Mr. Moxon's principles of poetry. He modestly disclaims all rivalry with Pope, Byron, Moore, Campbell, Scott, Rogers, Goldsmith, Dryden, Gray, Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare; but he, at the same time, intimates that he follows, what he thinks, a truer line of poetry than the before-named illustrious, but, in this point, mistaken individuals.
'Tis not a poem with learning fraught, To that I ne'er pretended; Nor yet with Pope's fine touches wrought, From that my time prevented.
We skip four intermediate stanzas; then comes
Milton divine and great Shakespeare With reverence I mention; My name with theirs shall ne'er appear, 'Tis far from my intention! If poetry, as one pretends, Be all imagination! Why then, at once, my bardship ends— 'Mong prose I take my station.
Moxon's Poems, p. 81, Ed. 1826.
But as "common sense" must see, says Mr. Moxon, that imagination can have nothing to do with poetry, he engages to pursue his tuneful vocation, subject to one condition—
You'll hear no more from me, If critics prove unkind; My next in simple prose must be, Unless I favour find!
We regret that some kind—or, as Mr. Moxon would have thought it, unkind—critic, did not, on the appearance of this first volume, confirm his own misgivings that he had been all this time, like the man in the farce, talking not only prose, but nonsense into the bargain: this disagreeable information the pretension of his recent publication obliges us to convey to him. The fact is, that the volume at first struck us with serious alarm. Its typographical splendour led us to fear that this style of writing was getting into fashion; and the hints about "classic Cam" seemed to impute the production to one of our Universities: on turning, with some curiosity, to the title-page, for the name of the too indulgent bookseller who had bestowed such unmerited embellishment on a work which we think of so little value—we found none; and on further inquiry learned that Dover Street, Piccadilly, and not the banks of "classic Cam" is the seat of this sonneteering muse—in short, that Mr. Moxon, the bookseller, is his own poet, and that Mr. Moxon, the poet, is his own bookseller. This discovery at once calmed both our anxieties—it relieved the university of Cambridge from an awful responsibility, which might have called down upon it the vengeance of Lord Radnor; and it accounted—without any imputation on the public taste—for the extraordinary care and cost with which the paternal solicitude of the poet-publisher had adorned his own volume. Mr. Moxon seems to be—like most sonneteers—a man of amiable disposition, and to have an ear—as he certainly has a memory—for poetry; and—if he had not been an old hand—we should not have presumed to say that he is incapable of anything better than this tumid commonplace. But, however that may be, we do earnestly exhort him to abandon the self-deluding practice of being his own publisher. Whatever may have been said in disparagement of the literary taste of the booksellers, it will at least be admitted that their experience of public opinion and a due attention to their own pecuniary interest, enable them to operate as a salutary check upon the blind and presumptive vanity of small authors. The necessity of obtaining the "imprimatur" of a publisher is a very wholesome restraint, from which Mr. Moxon—unluckily for himself and for us—found himself relieved. If he could have looked at his own work with the impartiality, and perhaps the good taste, that he would have exercised on that of a stranger, he would have saved himself a good deal of expense and vexation—and we should have been spared the painful necessity of contrasting the ambitious pretensions of his volume with its very moderate literary merit.
ON "VANITY FAIR" AND "JANE EYRE"
[From The Quarterly Review, December, 1848]
1. Vanity Fair; a Novel without a Hero. By WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY. London, 1848.
2. Jane Eyre; an Autobiography. Edited by CURRER BELL. In 3 vols. London. 1847.
A remarkable novel is a great event for English society. It is a kind of common friend, about whom people can speak the truth without fear of being compromised, and confess their emotions without being ashamed. We are a particularly shy and reserved people, and set about nothing so awkwardly as the simple art of getting really acquainted with each other. We meet over and over again in what is conventionally called "easy society," with the tacit understanding to go so far and no farther; to be as polite as we ought to be, and as intellectual as we can; but mutually and honourably to forbear lifting those veils which each spreads over his inner sentiments and sympathies. For this purpose a host of devices have been contrived by which all the forms of friendship may be gone through, without committing ourselves to one spark of the spirit. We fly with eagerness to some common ground in which each can take the liveliest interest, without taking the slightest in the world in his companion. Our various fashionable manias, for charity one season, for science the next, are only so many clever contrivances for keeping our neighbour at arm's length. We can attend committees, and canvass for subscribers, and archaeologise, and geologise, and take ether with our fellow Christians for a twelvemonth, as we might sit cross-legged and smoke the pipe of fraternity with a Turk for the same period—and know at the end of the time as little of the real feelings of the one as we should about the domestic relations of the other. But there are ways and means for lifting the veil which equally favour our national idiosyncrasy; and a new and remarkable novel is one of them—especially the nearer it comes to real life. We invite our neighbour to a walk with the deliberate and malicious object of getting thoroughly acquainted with him. We ask no impertinent questions— we proffer no indiscreet confidences—we do not even sound him, ever so delicately, as to his opinion of a common friend, for he would be sure not to say, lest we should go and tell; but we simply discuss Becky Sharp, or Jane Eyre, and our object is answered at once.
There is something about these two new and noticeable characters which especially compels everybody to speak out. They are not to be dismissed with a few commonplace moralities and sentimentalities. They do not fit any ready-made criticism. They give the most stupid something to think of, and the most reserved something to say; the most charitable too are betrayed into home comparisons which they usually condemn, and the most ingenious stumble into paradoxes which they can hardly defend. Becky and Jane also stand well side by side both in their analogies and their contrasts. Both the ladies are governesses, and both make the same move in society; the one, in Jane Eyre phraseology, marrying her "master," and the other her master's son. Neither starts in life with more than a moderate capital of good looks—Jane Eyre with hardly that—for it is the fashion now-a-days with novelists to give no encouragement to the insolence of mere beauty, but rather to prove to all whom it may concern how little a sensible woman requires to get on with in the world. Both have also an elfish kind of nature, with which they divine the secrets of other hearts, and conceal those of their own; and both rejoice in that peculiarity of feature which Mademoiselle de Luzy has not contributed to render popular, viz., green eyes. Beyond this, however, there is no similarity either in the minds, manners, or fortunes of the two heroines. They think and act upon diametrically opposite principles— at least so the author of "Jane Eyre" intends us to believe—and each, were they to meet, which we should of all things enjoy to see them do, would cordially despise and abominate the other. Which of the two, however, would most successfully dupe the other is a different question, and one not so easy to decide; though we have our own ideas upon the subject.
We must discuss "Vanity Fair" first, which, much as we were entitled to expect from its author's pen, has fairly taken us by surprise. We were perfectly aware that Mr. Thackeray had of old assumed the jester's habit, in order the more unrestrainedly to indulge the privilege of speaking the truth;—we had traced his clever progress through "Fraser's Magazine" and the ever-improving pages of "Punch"—which wonder of the time has been infinitely obliged to him—but still we were little prepared for the keen observation, the deep wisdom, and the consummate art which he has interwoven in the slight texture and whimsical pattern of "Vanity Fair." Everybody, it is to be supposed, has read the volume by this time; and even for those who have not, it is not necessary to describe the order of the story. It is not a novel, in the common acceptation of the word, with a plot purposely contrived to bring about certain scenes, and develop certain characters, but simply a history of those average sufferings, pleasures, penalties, and rewards to which various classes of mankind gravitate as naturally and certainly in this world as the sparks fly upward. It is only the same game of life which every player sooner or later makes for himself—were he to have a hundred chances, and shuffle the cards of circumstance every time. It is only the same busy, involved drama which may be seen at any time by any one, who is not engrossed with the magnified minutiae of his own petty part, but with composed curiosity looks on to the stage where his fellow-men and women are the actors; and that not even heightened by the conventional colouring which Madame de Stael philosophically declares that fiction always wants in order to make up for its not being truth. Indeed, so far from taking any advantage of this novelist's licence, Mr. Thackeray has hardly availed himself of the natural average of remarkable events that really do occur in this life. The battle of Waterloo, it is true, is introduced; but, as far as regards the story, it brings about only one death and one bankruptcy, which might either of them have happened in a hundred other ways. Otherwise the tale runs on, with little exception, in that humdrum course of daily monotony, out of which some people coin materials to act, and others excuses to doze, just as their dispositions may be.
It is this reality which is at once the charm and the misery here. With all these unpretending materials it is one of the most amusing, but also one of the most distressing books we have read for many a long year. We almost long for a little exaggeration and improbability to relieve us of that sense of dead truthfulness which weighs down our hearts, not for the Amelias and Georges of the story, but for poor kindred human nature. In one light this truthfulness is even an objection. With few exceptions the personages are too like our every-day selves and neighbours to draw any distinct moral from. We cannot see our way clearly. Palliations of the bad and disappointments in the good are perpetually obstructing our judgment, by bringing what should decide it too close to that common standard of experience in which our only rule of opinion is charity. For it is only in fictitious characters which are highly coloured for one definite object, or in notorious personages viewed from a distance, that the course of the true moral can be seen to run straight—once bring the individual with his life and circumstances closely before you, and it is lost to the mental eye in the thousand pleas and witnesses, unseen and unheard before, which rise up to overshadow it. And what are all these personages in "Vanity Fair" but feigned names for our own beloved friends and acquaintances, seen under such a puzzling cross-light of good in evil, and evil in good, of sins and sinnings against, of little to be praised virtues, and much to be excused vices, that we cannot presume to moralise upon them—not even to judge them,—content to exclaim sorrowfully with the old prophet, "Alas! my brother!" Every actor on the crowded stage of "Vanity Fair" represents some type of that perverse mixture of humanity in which there is ever something not wholly to approve or to condemn. There is the desperate devotion of a fond heart to a false object, which we cannot respect; there is the vain, weak man, half good and half bad, who is more despicable in our eyes than the decided villain. There are the irretrievably wretched education, and the unquenchably manly instincts, both contending in the confirmed roue, which melt us to the tenderest pity. There is the selfishness and self-will which the possessor of great wealth and fawning relations can hardly avoid. There is the vanity and fear of the world, which assist mysteriously with pious principles in keeping a man respectable; there are combinations of this kind of every imaginable human form and colour, redeemed but feebly by the steady excellence of an awkward man, and the genuine heart of a vulgar woman, till we feel inclined to tax Mr. Thackeray with an under estimate of our nature, forgetting that Madame de Stael is right after all, and that without a little conventional rouge no human conplexion can stand the stage-lights of fiction.
But if these performers give us pain, we are not ashamed to own, as we are speaking openly, that the chief actress herself gives us none at all. For there is of course a principal pilgrim in Vanity Fair, as much as in its emblematical original, Bunyan's "Progress"; only unfortunately this one is travelling the wrong way. And we say "unfortunately" merely by way of courtesy, for in reality we care little about the matter. No, Becky—our hearts neither bleed for you, nor cry out against you. You are wonderfully clever, and amusing, and accomplished, and intelligent, and the Soho ateliers were not the best nurseries for a moral training; and you were married early in life to a regular blackleg, and you have had to live upon your wits ever since, which is not an improving sort of maintenance; and there is much to be said for and against; but still you are not one of us, and there is an end to our sympathies and censures. People who allow their feelings to be lacerated by such a character and career as yours, are doing both you and themselves great injustice. No author could have openly introduced a near connexion of Satan's into the best London society, nor would the moral end intended have been answered by it; but really and honestly, considering Becky in her human character, we know of none which so thoroughly satisfies our highest beau ideal of feminine wickedness, with so slight a shock to our feelings and properties. It is very dreadful, doubtless, that Becky neither loved the husband who loved her, nor the child of her own flesh and blood, nor indeed any body but herself; but, as far as she is concerned, we cannot pretend to be scandalized—for how could she without a heart? It is very shocking of course that she committed all sorts of dirty tricks, and jockeyed her neighbours, and never cared what she trampled under foot if it happened to obstruct her step; but how could she be expected to do otherwise without a conscience? The poor little woman was most tryingly placed; she came into the world without the customary letters of credit upon those two great bankers of humanity, "Heart and Conscience," and it was no fault of hers if they dishonoured all her bills. All she could do in this dilemma was to establish the firmest connexion with the inferior commercial branches of "Sense and Tact," who secretly do much business in the name of the head concern, and with whom her "fine frontal development" gave her unlimited credit. She saw that selfishness was the metal which the stamp of heart was suborned to pass; that hypocrisy was the homage that vice rendered to virtue; that honesty was, at all events, acted, because it was the best policy; and so she practised the arts of selfishness and hypocrisy like anybody else in Vanity Fair, only with this difference, that she brought them to their highest possible pitch of perfection. For why is it that, looking round in this world, we find plenty of characters to compare with her up to a certain pitch, but none which reach her actual standard? Why is it that, speaking of this friend or that, we say in the tender mercies of our hearts, "No, she is not quite so bad as Becky?" We fear not only because she has more heart and conscience, but also because she has less cleverness.
No; let us give Becky her due. There is enough in this world of ours, as we all know, to provoke a saint, far more a poor little devil like her. She had none of those fellow-feelings which make us wondrous kind. She saw people around her cowards in vice, and simpletons in virtue, and she had no patience with either, for she was as little the one as the other herself. She saw women who loved their husbands and yet teazed them, and ruining their children although they doated upon them, and she sneered at their utter inconsistency. Wickedness or goodness, unless coupled with strength, were alike worthless to her. That weakness which is the blessed pledge of our humanity, was to her only the despicable badge of our imperfection. She thought, it might be, of her master's words, "Fallen Cherub! to be weak is to be miserable!" and wondered how we could be such fools as first to sin and then to be sorry. Becky's light was defective, but she acted up to it. Her goodness goes as far as good temper, and her principles as far as shrewd sense, and we may thank her consistency for showing us what they are both worth.
It is another thing to pretend to settle whether such a character be prima facie impossible, though devotion to the better sex might well demand the assertion. There are mysteries of iniquity, under the semblance of man and woman, read of in history, or met with in the unchronicled sufferings of private life, which would almost make us believe that the powers of Darkness occasionally made use of this earth for a Foundling Hospital, and sent their imps to us, already provided with a return-ticket. We shall not decide on the lawfulness or otherwise of any attempt to depict such importations; we can only rest perfectly satisfied that, granting the author's premises, it is impossible to imagine them carried out with more felicitous skill and more exquisite consistency than in the heroine of "Vanity Fair." At all events, the infernal regions have no reason to be ashamed of little Becky, nor the ladies either: she has, at least, all the cleverness of the sex.
The great charm, therefore, and comfort of Becky is, that we may study her without any compunctions. The misery of this life is not the evil that we see, but the good and the evil which are so inextricably twisted together. It is that perpetual memento ever meeting one—
How in this vile world below Noblest things find vilest using,
that is so very distressing to those who have hearts as well as eyes. But Becky relieves them of all this pain—at least in her own person. Pity would be thrown away upon one who has not heart enough for it to ache even for herself. Becky is perfectly happy, as all must be who excel in what they love best. Her life is one exertion of successful power. Shame never visits her, for "'Tis conscience that makes cowards of us all"—and she has none. She realizes that ne plus ultra of sublunary comfort which it was reserved for a Frenchman to define—the blessed combination of "le bon estomac et le mauvais coeur": for Becky adds to her other good qualities that of an excellent digestion.
Upon the whole, we are not afraid to own that we rather enjoy her ignis fatuus course, dragging the weak and the vain and the selffish [Transcriber's note: sic], through mud and mire, after her, and acting all parts, from the modest rushlight to the gracious star, just as it suits her. Clever little imp that she is! What exquisite tact she shows!—what unflagging good humour!—what ready self-possession! Becky never disappoints us; she never even makes us tremble. We know that her answer will come exactly suiting her one particular object, and frequently three or four more in prospect. What respect, too, she has for those decencies which more virtuous, but more stupid humanity, often disdains! What detection of all that is false and mean! What instinct for all that is true and great! She is her master's true pupil in that: she knows what is really divine as well as he, and bows before it. She honours Dobbin in spite of his big feet; she respects her husband more than ever she did before, perhaps for the first time, at the very moment when he is stripping not only her jewels, but name, honour, and comfort off her.
We are not so sure either whether we are justified in calling hers "le mauvais coeur." Becky does not pursue any one vindictively; she never does gratuitous mischief. The fountain is more dry than poisoned. She is even generous—when she can afford it. Witness that burst of plain speaking in Dobbin's favour to the little dolt Amelia, for which we forgive her many a sin. 'Tis true she wanted to get rid of her; but let that pass. Becky was a thrifty dame, and liked to despatch two birds with one stone. And she was honest, too, after a fashion. The part of wife she acts at first as well, and better than most; but as for that of mother, there she fails from the beginning. She knew that maternal love was no business of hers—that a fine frontal development could give her no help there—and puts so little spirit into her imitation that no one could be taken in for a moment. She felt that that bill, of all others, would be sure to be dishonoured, and it went against her conscience—we mean her sense—to send it in.
In short, the only respect in which Becky's course gives us pain is when it locks itself into that of another, and more genuine child of this earth. No one can regret those being entangled in her nets whose vanity and meanness of spirit alone led them into its meshes—such are rightly served; but we do grudge her that real sacred thing called love, even of a Rawdon Crawley, who has more of that self-forgetting, all-purifying feeling for his little evil spirit than many a better man has for a good woman. We do grudge Becky a heart, though it belong only to a swindler. Poor, sinned against, vile, degraded, but still true-hearted Rawdon!—you stand next in our affections and sympathies to honest Dobbin himself. It was the instinct of a good nature which made the Major feel that the stamp of the Evil One was upon Becky; and it was the stupidity of a good nature which made the Colonel never suspect it. He was a cheat, a black-leg, an unprincipled dog; but still "Rawdon is a man, and be hanged to him," as the Rector says. We follow him through the illustrations, which are, in many instances, a delightful enhancement to the text—as he stands there, with his gentle eyelid, coarse moustache, and foolish chin, bringing up Becky's coffee-cup with a kind of dumb fidelity; or looking down at little Rawdon with a more than paternal tenderness. All Amelia's philoprogenitive idolatries do not touch us like one fond instinct of "stupid Rawdon."
Dobbin sheds a halo over all the long-necked, loose-jointed, Scotch-looking gentlemen of our acquaintance. Flat feet and flap ears seem henceforth incompatible with evil. He reminds us of one of the sweetest creations that have appeared from any modern pen—that plain, awkward, loveable "Long Walter," in Lady Georgina Fullerton's beautiful novel of "Grantley Manor." Like him, too, in his proper self-respect; for Dobbin—lumbering, heavy, shy, and absurdly over modest as the ugly fellow is—is yet true to himself. At one time he seems to be sinking into the mere abject dangler after Amelia; but he breaks his chains like a man, and resumes them again like a man, too, although half disenchanted of his amiable delusion.
But to return for a moment to Becky. The only criticism we would offer is one which the author has almost disarmed by making her mother a Frenchwoman. The construction of this little clever monster is diabolically French. Such a lusus naturae as a woman without a heart and conscience would, in England, be a mere brutal savage, and poison half a village. France is the land for the real Syren, with the woman's face and the dragon's claws. The genus of Pigeon and Laffarge claims it for its own—only that our heroine takes a far higher class by not requiring the vulgar matter of fact of crime to develop her full powers. It is an affront to Becky's tactics to believe that she could ever be reduced to so low a resource, or, that if she were, anybody would find it out. We, therefore, cannot sufficiently applaud the extreme discretion with which Mr. Thackeray has hinted at the possibly assistant circumstances of Joseph Sedley's dissolution. A less delicacy of handling would have marred the harmony of the whole design. Such a casualty as that suggested to our imagination was not intended for the light net of Vanity Fair to draw on shore; it would have torn it to pieces. Besides it is not wanted. Poor little Becky is bad enough to satisfy the most ardent student of "good books." Wickedness, beyond a certain pitch, gives no increase of gratification even to the sternest moralist; and one of Mr. Thackeray's excellences is the sparing quantity he consumes. The whole use, too, of the work—that of generously measuring one another by this standard—is lost, the moment you convict Becky of a capital crime. Who can, with any face, liken a dear friend to a murderess? Whereas now there are no little symptoms of fascinating ruthlessness, graceful ingratitude, or ladylike selfishness, observable among our charming acquaintance, that we may not immediately detect to an inch, and more effectually intimidate by the simple application of the Becky gauge than by the most vehement use of all ten commandments. Thanks to Mr. Thackeray, the world is now provided with an idea, which, if we mistake not, will be the skeleton in the corner of every ball-room and boudoir for a long time to come. Let us leave it intact in its unique fount and freshness—a Becky, and nothing more. We should, therefore, advise our readers to cut out that picture of our heroine's "Second Appearance as Clytemnestra," which casts so uncomfortable a glare over the latter part of the volume, and, disregarding all hints and inuendoes, simply to let the changes and chances of this moral life have due weight in their minds. Jos had been much in India. His was a bad life; he ate and drank most imprudently, and his digestion was not to be compared with Becky's. No respectable office would have ensured "Waterloo Sedley."
"Vanity Fair" is pre-eminently a novel of the day—not in the vulgar sense, of which there are too many, but as a literal photograph of the manners and habits of the nineteenth century, thrown on to paper by the light of a powerful mind; and one also of the most artistic effect. Mr. Thackeray has a peculiar adroitness in leading on the fancy, or rather memory of his readers from one set of circumstances to another by the seeming chances and coincidences of common life, as an artist leads the spectator's eye through the subject of his picture by a skilful repetition of colour. This is why it is impossible to quote from his book with any justice to it. The whole growth of the narrative is so matted and interwoven together with tendril-like links and bindings, that there is no detaching a flower with sufficient length of stalk to exhibit it to advantage. There is that mutual dependence in his characters which is the first requisite in painting every-day life: no one is stuck on a separate pedestal—no one is sitting for his portrait. There may be one exception—we mean Sir Pitt Crawley, senior; it is possible, nay, we hardly doubt, that this baronet was closer drawn from individual life than anybody else in the book; but granting that fact, the animal was so unique an exception, that we wonder so shrewd an artist could stick him into a gallery so full of our familiars. The scenes in Germany, we can believe, will seem to many readers of an English book hardly less extravagantly absurd—grossly and gratuitously overdrawn; but the initiated will value them as containing some of the keenest strokes of truth and humour that "Vanity Fair" exhibits, and not enjoy them the less for being at our neighbour's expense. For the thorough appreciation of the chief character they are quite indispensable too. The whole course of the work may be viewed as the Wander-Jahre of a far cleverer female, Wilhelm Meister. We have watched her in the ups-and-downs of life—among the humble, the fashionable, the great, and the pious—and found her ever new, yet ever the same; but still Becky among the students was requisite to complete the full measure of our admiration.
"Jane Eyre," as a work, and one of equal popularity, is, in almost every respect, a total contrast to "Vanity Fair." The characters and events, though some of them masterly in conception, are coined expressly for the purpose of bringing out great effects. The hero and heroine are beings both so singularly unattractive that the reader feels they can have no vocation in the novel but to be brought together; and they do things which, though not impossible, lie utterly beyond the bounds of probability. On this account a short sketch of the plan seems requisite; not but what it is a plan familiar enough to all readers of novels— especially those of the old school and those of the lowest school of our own day. For Jane Eyre is merely another Pamela, who, by the force of her character and the strength of her principles, is carried victoriously through great trials and temptations from the man she loves. Nor is she even a Pamela adapted and refined to modern notions; for though the story is conducted without those derelictions of decorum which we are to believe had their excuse in the manners of Richardson's time, yet it stamped with a coarseness of language and laxity of tone which have certainly no excuse in ours. It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste. Both together have equally assisted to gain the great popularity it has enjoyed; for in these days of extravagant adoration of all that bears the stamp of novelty and originality, sheer rudeness and vulgarity have come in for a most mistaken worship.
The story is written in the first person. Jane begins with her earliest recollections, and at once takes possession of the readers' intensest interest by the masterly picture of a strange and oppressed child she raises up in a few strokes before him. She is an orphan, and a dependant in the house of a selfish, hard-hearted aunt, against whom the disposition of the little Jane chafes itself in natural antipathy, till she contrives to make the unequal struggle as intolerable to her oppressor as it is to herself. She is, therefore, at eight years of age, got rid of to a sort of Dothegirls Hall, where she continues to enlist our sympathies for a time with her little pinched fingers, cropped hair, and empty stomach. But things improve: the abuses of the institution are looked into. The Puritan patron, who holds that young orphan girls are only safely brought up upon the rules of La Trappe, is superseded by an enlightened committee—the school assumes a sound English character— Jane progresses duly from scholar to teacher, and passes ten profitable and not unhappy years at Lowood. Then she advertises for a situation as governess, and obtains one immediately in one of the midland counties. We see her, therefore, as she leaves Lowood, to enter upon a new life—a small, plain, odd creature, who has been brought up dry upon school learning, and somewhat stunted accordingly in mind and body, and who is now thrown upon the world as ignorant of its ways, and as destitute of its friendships, as a shipwrecked mariner upon a strange coast.
Thornfield Hall is the property of Mr. Rochester—a bachelor addicted to travelling. She finds it at first in all the peaceful prestige of an English gentleman's seat when "nobody is at the hall." The companions are an old decayed gentlewoman housekeeper—a far away cousin of the squire's—and a young French child, Jane's pupil, Mr. Rochester's ward and reputed daughter. There is a pleasing monotony in the summer solitude of the old country house, with its comfort, respectability, and dulness, which Jane paints to the life; but there is one circumstance which varies the sameness and casts a mysterious feeling over the scene. A strange laugh is heard from time to time in a distant part of the house—a laugh which grates discordantly upon Jane's ear. She listens, watches, and inquires, but can discover nothing but a plain matter of fact woman, who sits sewing somewhere in the attics, and goes up and down stairs peaceably to and from her dinner with the servants. But a mystery there is, though nothing betrays it, and it comes in with marvellous effect from the monotonous reality of all around. After awhile Mr. Rochester comes to Thornfield, and sends for the child and her governess occasionally to bear him company. He is a dark, strange-looking man—strong and large—of the brigand stamp, with fine eyes and lowering brows—blunt and sarcastic in his manners, with a kind of misanthropical frankness, which seems based upon utter contempt for his fellow-creatures and a surly truthfulness which is more rudeness than honesty. With his arrival disappears all the prestige of country innocence that had invested Thornfield Hall. He brings the taint of the world upon him, and none of its illusions. The queer little governess is something new to him. He talks to her at one time imperiously as to a servant, and at another recklessly as to a man. He pours into her ears disgraceful tales of his past life, connected with the birth of little Adele, which any man with common respect for a woman, and that a mere girl of eighteen, would have spared her; but which eighteen in this case listens to as if it were nothing new, and certainly nothing distasteful. He is captious and Turk-like—she is one day his confidant, and another his unnoticed dependant. In short, by her account, Mr. Rochester is a strange brute, somewhat in the Squire Western style of absolute and capricious eccentricity, though redeemed in him by signs of a cultivated intellect, and gleams of a certain fierce justice of heart. He has a mind, and when he opens it at all, he opens it freely to her. Jane becomes attached to her "master," as Pamela-like she calls him, and it is not difficult to see that solitude and propinquity are taking effect upon him also. An odd circumstance heightens the dawning romance. Jane is awoke one night by that strange discordant laugh close to her ear— then a noise as if hands feeling along the wall. She rises—opens her door, finds the passage full of smoke, is guided by it to her master's room, whose bed she discovers enveloped in flames, and by her timely aid saves his life. After this they meet no more for ten days, when Mr. Rochester returns from a visit to a neighbouring family, bringing with him a housefull of distinguished guests; at the head of whom is Miss Blanche Ingram, a haughty beauty of high birth, and evidently the especial object of the Squire's attentions—upon which tumultuous irruption Miss Eyre slips back into her naturally humble position.
Our little governess is now summoned away to attend her aunt's death-bed, who is visited by some compunctions towards her, and she is absent a month. When she returns Thornfield Hall is quit of all its guests, and Mr. Rochester and she resume their former life of captious cordiality on the one side, and diplomatic humility on the other. At the same time the bugbear of Miss Ingram and of Mr. Rochester's engagement with her is kept up, though it is easy to see that this and all concerning that lady is only a stratagem to try Jane's character and affection upon the most approved Griselda precedent. Accordingly an opportunity for explanation ere long offers itself, where Mr. Rochester has only to take it. Miss Eyre is desired to walk with him in shady alleys, and to sit with him on the roots of an old chestnut-tree towards the close of evening, and of course she cannot disobey her "master"—whereupon there ensues a scene which, as far as we remember, is new equally in art or nature; in which Miss Eyre confesses her love—whereupon Mr. Rochester drops not only his cigar (which she seems to be in the habit of lighting for him) but his mask, and finally offers not only heart, but hand. The wedding day is soon fixed, but strange misgivings and presentiments haunt the young lady's mind. The night but one before her bed-room is entered by a horrid phantom, who tries on the wedding veil, sends Jane into a swoon of terror, and defeats all the favourite refuge of a bad dream by leaving the veil in two pieces. But all is ready. The bride has no friends to assist—the couple walk to church—only the clergyman and the clerk are there—but Jane's quick eye has seen two figures lingering among the tombstones, and these two follow them into church. The ceremony commences, when at the due charge which summons any man to come forward and show just cause why they should not be joined together, a voice interposes to forbid the marriage. There is an impediment, and a serious one. The bridegroom has a wife not only living, but living under the very roof of Thornfield Hall. Hers was that discordant laugh which had so often caught Jane's ear; she it was who in her malice had tried to burn Mr. Rochester in his bed—who had visited Jane by night and torn her veil, and whose attendant was that same pretended sew-woman who had so strongly excited Jane's curiosity. For Mr. Rochester's wife is a creature, half fiend, half maniac, whom he had married in a distant part of the world, and whom now, in self-constituted code of morality, he had thought it his right, and even his duty, to supersede by a more agreeable companion. Now follow scenes of a truly tragic power. This is the grand crisis in Jane's life. Her whole soul is wrapt up in Mr. Rochester. He has broken her trust, but not diminished her love. He entreats her to accept all that he still can give, his heart and his home; he pleads with the agony not only of a man who has never known what it was to conquer a passion, but of one who, by that same self-constituted code, now burns to atone for a disappointed crime. There is no one to help her against him or against herself. Jane had no friends to stand by her at the altar, and she has none to support her now she is plucked away from it. There is no one to be offended or disgraced at her following him to the sunny land of Italy, as he proposes, till the maniac should die. There is no duty to any one but to herself, and this feeble reed quivers and trembles beneath the overwhelming weight of love and sophistry opposed to it. But Jane triumphs; in the middle of the night she rises—glides out of her room—takes off her shoes as she passes Mr. Rochester's chamber;—leaves the house, and casts herself upon a world more desert than ever to her—