Hours in a Library - New Edition, with Additions. Vol. II (of 3)
by Leslie Stephen
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Massinger represents a different turn of sentiment which would be encouraged in some minds by the same social conditions. Instead of abandoning himself frankly to the stream of youthful sentiment, he feels that it has a dangerous aspect. The shadow of coming evils was already dark enough to suggest various forebodings. But he is also a moraliser by temperament. Mr. Ward says that his strength is owing in a great degree to his appreciation of the great moral forces; and the remark is only a confirmation of the judgment of most of his critics. It is, of course, not merely that he is fond of adding little moral tags of questionable applicability to the end of his plays. 'We are taught,' he says in the 'Fatal Dowry,'

By this sad precedent, how just soever Our reasons are to remedy our wrongs, We are yet to leave them to their will and power That to that purpose have authority.

But it is, to say the least, doubtful whether anybody would have that judicious doctrine much impressed upon him by seeing the play itself. Nor can one rely much upon the elaborate and very eloquent defence of his art in the 'Roman Actor.' Paris, the actor, sets forth very vigorously that the stage tends to lay bare the snares to which youth is exposed and to inflame a noble ambition by example. If the discharge of such a function deserves reward from the Commonwealth—

Actors may put in for as large a share As all the sects of the philosophers;— They with cold precepts—perhaps seldom read— Deliver what an honourable thing The active virtue is; but does that fire The blood, or swell the veins with emulation To be both good and great, equal to that Which is presented in our theatres?

Massinger goes on to show, after the fashion of Jaques in 'As You Like It,' that the man who chooses to put on the cap is responsible for the application of the satire. He had good reasons, as we have seen, for feeling sensitive as to misunderstandings—or, rather, too thorough understandings—of this kind.

To some dramatists of the time, who should put forward such a plea, one would be inclined to answer in the sensible words of old Fuller. 'Two things,' he says, 'are set forth to us in stage plays; some grave sentences, prudent counsels, and punishment of vicious examples: and with these desperate oaths, lustful talk, and riotous acts, are so personated to the life, that wantons are tickled with delight, and feed their palates upon them. It seems the goodness is not portrayed with equal accents of liveliness as the wicked things are; otherwise men would be deterred from vicious courses, with seeing the woful success which follows them'—a result scarcely to be claimed by the actors of the day. Massinger, however, shows more moral feeling than is expended in providing sentiments to be tacked on as an external appendage, or satisfied by an obedience to the demands of poetic justice. He is not content with knocking his villains on the head—a practice in which he, like his contemporaries, indulges with only too much complacency. The idea which underlies most of his plays is a struggle of virtue assailed by external or inward temptations. He is interested by the ethical problems introduced in the play of conflicting passions, and never more eloquent than in uttering the emotions of militant or triumphant virtue. His view of life, indeed, is not only grave, but has a distinct religious colouring. From various indications, it is probable that he was a Roman Catholic. Some of these are grotesque enough. The 'Renegado,' for example, not only shows that Massinger was, for dramatic purposes at least, an ardent believer in baptismal regeneration, but includes—what one would scarcely have sought in such a place—a discussion as to the validity of lay-baptism. The first of his surviving plays, the 'Virgin Martyr' (in which he was assisted by Dekker), is simply a dramatic version of an ecclesiastical legend. Though it seems to have been popular at the time, the modern reader will probably think that, in this case at least, the religious element is a little out of place. An angel and a devil take an active part in the performance; miracles are worked on the stage; the unbelievers are so shockingly wicked, and the Christians so obtrusively good, that we—the worldly-minded—are sensible of a little recalcitration, unless we are disarmed by the simplicity of the whole performance. Religious tracts of all ages and in all forms are apt to produce this ambiguous effect. Unless we are quite in harmony with their assumptions, we feel that they deal too much in conventional rose-colour. The angelic and diabolic elements are not so clearly discriminated in this world, and should show themselves less unequivocally on the stage, which ought to be its mirror. Such art was not congenial to the English atmosphere; it might be suitable in Madrid; but when forcibly transplanted to the London stage, we feel that the performance has not the simple earnestness by which alone it can be justified. The sentiment has a certain unreality, and the naivete suggests affectation. The implied belief is got up for the moment and has a hollow ring. And therefore, the whole work, in spite of some eloquence, is nothing better than a curiosity, as an attempt at the assimilation of a heterogeneous form of art.

A similar vein of sentiment, though not showing itself in so undiluted a form, runs through most of Massinger's plays. He is throughout a sentimentalist and a rhetorician. He is not, like the greatest men, dominated by thoughts and emotions which force him to give them external embodiment in life-like symbols. He is rather a man of much real feeling and extraordinary facility of utterance, who finds in his stories convenient occasions for indulging in elaborate didactic utterances upon moral topics. It is probably this comparative weakness of the higher imaginative faculty which makes Lamb speak of him rather disparagingly. He is too self-conscious and too anxious to enforce downright moral sentiments to satisfy a critic by whom spontaneous force and direct insight were rightly regarded as the highest poetic qualities. A single touch in Shakespeare, or even in Webster or Ford, often reveals more depth of feeling than a whole scene of Massinger's facile and often deliberately forensic eloquence. His temperament is indicated by the peculiarities of his style. It is, as Coleridge says, poetry differentiated by the smallest possible degree from prose. The greatest artists of blank verse have so complete a mastery of their language that it is felt as a fibre which runs through and everywhere strengthens the harmony, and is yet in complete subordination to the sentiment. With a writer of the second order, such as Fletcher, the metre becomes more prominent, and at times produces a kind of monotonous sing-song, which begins to remind us unpleasantly of the still more artificial tone characteristic of the rhymed tragedies of the next generation. Massinger diverges in the opposite direction. The metre is felt enough and only just enough to give a more stately step to rather florid prose. It is one of his marks that a line frequently ends by some insignificant 'of' or 'from,' so as to exclude the briefest possible pause in reading. Thus, to take an example pretty much at random, the following instance might be easily read without observing that it was blank verse at all:—

'Your brave achievements in the war, and what you did for me, unspoken, because I would not force the sweetness of your modesty to a blush, are written here; and that there might be nothing wanting to sum up my numerous engagements (never in my hopes to be cancelled), the great duke, our mortal enemy, when my father's country lay open to his fury and the spoil of the victorious army, and I brought into his power, hath shown himself so noble, so full of honour, temperance, and all virtues that can set off a prince; that, though I cannot render him that respect I would, I am bound in thankfulness to admire him.'

Such a style is suitable to a man whose moods do not often hurry him into impetuous, or vivacious, or epigrammatic utterance. As the Persian poet says of his country: his warmth is not heat, and his coolness is not cold. He flows on in a quiet current, never breaking into foam or fury, but vigorous, and invariably lucid. As a pleader before a law-court—the character in which, as Mr. Ward observes, he has a peculiar fondness for presenting himself—he would carry his audience along with him, but scarcely hold them in spell-bound astonishment or hurry them into fits of excitement. Melancholy resignation or dignified dissatisfaction will find in him a powerful exponent, but scarcely despair, or love, or hatred, or any social phase of pure unqualified passion.

The natural field for the display of such qualities is the romantic drama, which Massinger took from the hands of Beaumont and Fletcher, and endowed with greater dignity and less poetic fervour. For the vigorous comedy of real life, as Jonson understood it, he has simply no capacity; and in his rare attempts at humour, succeeds only in being at once dull and dirty. His stage is generally occupied with dignified lords and ladies, professing the most chivalrous sentiments, which are occasionally too high-flown and overstrained to be thoroughly effective, but which are yet uttered with sufficient sincerity. They are not mere hollow pretences, consciously adopted to conceal base motives; but one feels the want of an occasional infusion of the bracing air of common sense. It is the voice of a society still inspired with the traditional sentiments of honour and self-respect, but a little afraid of contact with the rough realities of life. Its chivalry is a survival from a past epoch, not a spontaneous outgrowth of the most vital elements of contemporary development. In another generation, such a tone will be adopted by a conscious and deliberate artifice, and be reflected in mere theatrical rant. In the past, it was the natural expression of a high-spirited race, full of self-confidence and pride in its own vigorous audacity. In this transitional period it has a certain hectic flush, symptomatic of approaching decay; anxious to give a wide berth to realities, and most at home in the border land where dreams are only half dispelled by the light of common day. 'Don Quixote' had sounded the knell of the old romance, but something of the old spirit still lingers, and can tinge with an interest, not yet wholly artificial, the lives and passions of beings who are thus hovering on the outskirts of the living world. The situations most characteristic of Massinger's tendency are in harmony with this tone of sentiment. They are romances taken from a considerable variety of sources, developed in a clearly connected series of scenes. They are wanting in the imaginative unity of the great plays, which show that a true poet has been profoundly moved by some profound thought embodied in a typical situation. He does not, like Shakespeare, seize his subject by the heart, because it has first fascinated his imagination; nor, on the other hand, have we that bewildering complexity of motives and intricacy of plot which shows at best a lawless and wandering fancy, and which often fairly puzzles us in many English plays, and enforces frequent reference to the list of personages in order to disentangle the crossing threads of the action. Massinger's plays are a gradual unravelling of a series of incidents, each following intelligibly from the preceding situation, and suggestive of many eloquent observations, though not developments of one master-thought. We often feel that, if external circumstances had been propitious, he would have expressed himself more naturally in the form of a prose romance than in a drama. Nor, again, does he often indulge in those exciting and horrible situations which possess such charms for his contemporaries. There are occasions, it is true, in which this element is not wanting. In the 'Unnatural Combat,' for example, we have a father killing his son in a duel, by the end of the second act; and when, after a succession of horrors of the worst kind, we are treated to a ghost, 'full of wounds, leading in the shadow of a lady, her face leprous,' and the worst criminal is killed by a flash of lightning, we feel that we were fully entitled to such a catastrophe. We can only say, in Massinger's words,—

May we make use of This great example, and learn from it that There cannot be a want of power above To punish murder and unlawful love!

The 'Duke of Milan' again culminates with a horrible scene, rivalling, though with less power, the grotesque horrors of Webster's 'Duchess of Malfi.' Other instances might be given of concessions to that blood-and-thunder style of dramatic writing for which our ancestors had a never-failing appetite. But, as a rule, Massinger inclines, as far as contemporary writers will allow him, to the side of mercy. Instead of using slaughter so freely that a new set of actors has to be introduced to bury the old—a misfortune which sometimes occurs in the plays of the time—he generally tends to a happy solution, and is disposed not only to dismiss his virtuous characters to felicity, but even to make his villains virtuous. We have not been excited to that pitch at which our passions can only be harmonised by an effusion of blood, and a mild solution is sufficient for the calmer feelings which have been aroused.

This tendency illustrates Massinger's conception of life in another sense. Nothing is more striking in the early stage than the vigour of character of most of these heroes. Individual character, as it is said, takes the place in the modern of fate in the ancient drama. Every man is run in a mould of iron, and may break, but cannot bend. The fitting prologue to the whole literature is provided by Marlowe's Tamburlaine, with his superhuman audacity and vast bombastic rants, the incarnation of a towering ambition which scorns all laws but its own devouring passion. Faustus, braving all penalties, human and divine, is another variety of the same type: and when we have to do with a weak character like Edward II., we feel that it is his natural destiny to be confined in a loathsome dungeon, with mouldy bread to eat and ditch-water to drink. The world is for the daring; and though daring may be pushed to excess, weakness is the one unpardonable offence. A thoroughgoing villain is better than a trembling saint. If Shakespeare's instinctive taste revealed the absurdity of the bombastic exaggeration of such tendencies, his characters are equally unbending. His villains die, like Macbeth and Iago, with their teeth set, and scorn even a deathbed repentance. Hamlet exhibits the unfitness for a world of action of the man who is foolish enough to see two sides to every question. So again, Chapman, the writer who in fulness and fire of thought approaches most nearly to Shakespeare, is an ardent worshipper of pure energy of character. His Bussy d'Ambois cannot be turned from his purpose even by the warnings of the ghost of his accomplice, and a mysterious spirit summoned expressly to give advice. An admirably vigorous phrase from one of the many declamations of his hero Byron—another representative of the same haughty strength of will—gives his theory of character:—

Give me a spirit that on this life's rough sea Loves t' have his sail filled with a lusty wind, Even till his sailyards tremble, his masts crack, And his rapt ship run on her side so low That she drinks water, and her keel plows air.

Pure, undiluted energy, stern force of will, delight in danger for its own sake, contempt for all laws but the self-imposed, those are the cardinal virtues, and challenge our sympathy even when they lead their possessor to destruction. The psychology implied in Jonson's treating of 'humour' is another phase of the same sentiment. The side by which energetic characters lend themselves to comedy is the exaggeration of some special trait which determines their course as tyrannically as ambition governs the character suited for tragedy.

When we turn to Massinger, this boundless vigour has disappeared. The blood has grown cool. The tyrant no longer forces us to admiration by the fulness of his vitality, and the magnificence of his contempt for law. Whether for good or bad, he is comparatively a poor creature. He has developed an uneasy conscience, and even whilst affecting to defy the law, trembles at the thought of an approaching retribution. His boasts have a shrill, querulous note in them. His creator does not fully sympathise with his passion. Massinger cannot throw himself into the situation; and is anxious to dwell upon the obvious moral considerations which prove such characters to be decidedly inconvenient members of society for their tamer neighbours. He is of course the more in accordance with a correct code of morality, but fails correspondingly in dramatic force and brilliance of colour. To exhibit a villain truly, even to enable us to realise the true depth of his villainy, one must be able for a moment to share his point of view, and therefore to understand the true law of his being. It is a very sound rule in the conduct of life, that we should not sympathise with scoundrels. But the morality of the poet, as of the scientific psychologist, is founded upon the unflinching veracity which sets forth all motives with absolute impartiality. Some sort of provisional sympathy with the wicked there must be, or they become mere impossible monsters or the conventional scarecrows of improving tracts.

This is Massinger's weakest side. His villains want backbone, and his heroes are deficient in simple overmastering passion, or supplement their motives by some overstrained and unnatural crotchet. Impulsiveness takes the place of vigour, and indicates the want of a vigorous grasp of the situation. Thus, for example, the 'Duke of Milan,' which is certainly amongst the more impressive of Massinger's plays, may be described as a variation upon the theme of 'Othello.' To measure the work of any other writer by its relation to that masterpiece is, of course, to apply a test of undue severity. Of comparison, properly speaking, there can be no question. The similarity of the situation, however, may bring out Massinger's characteristics. The Duke, who takes the place of Othello, is, like his prototype, a brave soldier. The most spirited and effective passage in the play is the scene in which he is brought as a prisoner before Charles V., and not only extorts the admiration of his conqueror, but wins his liberty by a dignified avowal of his previous hostility, and avoidance of any base compliance. The Duke shows himself to be a high-minded gentleman, and we are so far prepared to sympathise with him when exposed to the wiles of Francisco—the Iago of the piece. But, unfortunately, the scene is not merely a digression in a constructive sense, but involves a psychological inconsistency. The gallant soldier contrives to make himself thoroughly contemptible. He is represented as excessively uxorious, and his passion takes the very disagreeable turn of posthumous jealousy. He has instructed Francisco to murder the wife whom he adores, in case of his own death during the war, and thus to make sure that she could not marry anybody else. On his return, the wife, who has been informed by the treachery of Francisco of this pleasant arrangement, is naturally rather cool to him; whereupon he flies into a rage and swears that he will

Never think of curs'd Marcelia more.

His affection returns in another scene, but only in order to increase his jealousy, and on hearing Francisco's slander he proceeds to stab his wife out of hand. It is the action of a weak man in a passion, not of a noble nature tortured to madness. Finding out his mistake, he of course repents again, and expresses himself with a good deal of eloquence which would be more effective if we could forget the overpowering pathos of the parallel scene in 'Othello.' Much sympathy, however, is impossible for a man whose whole conduct is so flighty, and so obviously determined by the immediate demands of successive situations of the play, and not the varying manifestation of a powerfully conceived character. Francisco is a more coherent villain, and an objection made by Hazlitt to his apparent want of motive is at least equally valid against Iago; but he is of course but a diluted version of that superlative villain, as Marcelia is a rather priggish and infinitely less tender Desdemona. The failure, however, of the central figure to exhibit any fixity of character is the real weakness of the play; and the horrors of the last scene fail to atone for the want of the vivid style which reveals an 'intense and gloomy mind.'

This kind of versatility and impulsiveness of character is revealed by the curious convertibility—if one may use the word—of his characters. They are the very reverse of the men of iron of the previous generation. They change their state of mind as easily as the characters of the contemporary drama put on disguises. We are often amazed at the simplicity which enables a whole family to suppose the brother and father to whom they have been speaking ten minutes before to be an entire stranger, because he has changed his coat or talks broken English. The audience must have been easily satisfied in such cases; but it requires almost equal simplicity to accept some of Massinger's transformations. In such a play as the 'Virgin Martyr,' a religious conversion is a natural part of the scheme. Nor need we be surprised at the amazing facility with which a fair Mohammedan is converted in the 'Renegado' by the summary assertion that the 'juggling Prophet' is a cheat, and taught a pigeon to feed in his ear. Can there be strength, it is added, in that religion which allows us to fear death? 'This is unanswerable,' exclaims the lady, 'and there is something tells me I err in my opinion.' This is almost as good as the sudden thought of swearing eternal friendship in the 'Anti-Jacobin.' The hardened villain of the first act in the same play falls into despair in the third, and, with the help of an admirable Jesuit, becomes a most useful and exemplary convert by the fifth. But such catastrophes may be regarded as more or less miraculous. The versatility of character is more singular when religious conversions are not in question. 'I am certain,' says Philanax in the 'Emperor of the East,'

'A prince so soon in his disposition altered Was never heard nor read of.'

That proves that Philanax was not familiar with Massinger's plays. The disposition of princes and of subjects is there constantly altered with the most satisfactory result. It is not merely that, as often happens elsewhere, the villains are summarily forced to repent at the end of a play, like Angelo in 'Measure for Measure,' in order to allow the curtain to fall upon a prospect of happiness. Such forced catastrophes are common, if clumsy enough. But there is something malleable in the very constitution of Massinger's characters. They repent half-way through the performance, and see the error of their ways with a facility which we could wish to be imitated in common life. The truth seems to be that Massinger is subject to an illusion natural enough to a man who is more of the rhetorician than the seer. He fancies that eloquence must be irresistible. He takes the change of mood produced by an elevated appeal to the feelings for a change of character. Thus, for example, in the 'Picture'—a characteristic, though not a very successful play—we have a story founded upon the temptations of a separated husband and wife. The husband carries with him a magical picture, which grows dark or bright according to the behaviour of the wife, whom it represents. The husband is tempted to infidelity by a queen, herself spoilt by the flatteries of an uxorious husband; and the wife by a couple of courtiers, who have all the vices of Fletcher's worst heroes without any of their attractions. The interest of the play, such as it is, depends upon the varying moods of the chief actors, who become so eloquent under a sense of wrong or a reflection upon the charms of virtue, that they approach the bounds of vice, and then gravitate back to respectability. Everybody becomes perfectly respectable before the end of the play is reached, and we are to suppose that they will remain respectable ever afterwards. They avoid tragic results by their want of the overmastering passions which lead to great crimes or noble actions. They are really eloquent, but even more moved by their eloquence than the spectators can be. They form the kind of audience which would be most flattering to an able preacher, but in which a wise preacher would put little confidence. And, therefore, besides the fanciful incident of the picture, they give us an impression of unreality. They have no rich blood in their veins; and are little better than lay figures taking up positions as it may happen, in order to form an effective tableau illustrative of an unexceptionable moral.

There is, it is true, one remarkable exception to the general weakness of Massinger's characters. The vigour with which Sir Giles Overreach is set forth has made him the one well-known figure in Massinger's gallery, and the 'New Way to Pay Old Debts' showed, in consequence, more vitality than any of his other plays. Much praise has been given, and not more than enough, to the originality and force of the conception. The conventional miser is elevated into a great man by a kind of inverse heroism, and made terrible instead of contemptible. But it is equally plain that here, too, Massinger fails to project himself fairly into his villain. His rants are singularly forcible, but they are clearly what other people would think about him, not what he would really think, still less what he would say, of himself. Take, for example, the very fine speech in which he replies to the question of the virtuous nobleman, whether he is not frightened by the imprecations of his victims:—

Yes, as rocks are When foaming billows split themselves against Their flinty sides; or as the moon is moved When wolves, with hunger pined, howl at her brightness. I am of a solid temper, and, like these, Steer on a constant course; with mine own sword, If called into the field, I can make that right Which fearful enemies murmur at as wrong. Now, for those other piddling complaints Breath'd out in bitterness, as when they call me Extortioner, tyrant, cormorant, or intruder On my poor neighbour's rights or grand incloser Of what was common to my private use, Nay, when my ears are pierced with widows' cries, And undone orphans wash with tears my threshold, I only think what 'tis to have my daughter Right honourable; and 'tis a powerful charm Makes me insensible to remorse or pity, Or the least sting of conscience.

Put this into the third person; read 'he' for 'I,' and 'his' for 'my,' and it is an admirable bit of denunciation of a character probably intended as a copy from life. It is a description of a wicked man from outside; and wickedness seen from outside is generally unreasonable and preposterous. When it is converted, by simple alteration of pronouns, into the villain's own account of himself, the internal logic which serves as a pretext disappears, and he becomes a mere monster. It is for this reason that, as Hazlitt says, Massinger's villains—and he was probably thinking especially of Overreach and Luke in 'A City Madam'—appear like drunkards or madmen. His plays are apt to be a continuous declamation, cut up into fragments, and assigned to the different actors; and the essential unfitness of such a method to dramatic requirements needs no elaborate demonstration. The villains will have to denounce themselves, and will be ready to undergo conversion at a moment's notice, in order to spout openly on behalf of virtue as vigorously as they have spouted in transparent disguise on behalf of vice.

There is another consequence of Massinger's romantic tendency, which is more pleasing. The chivalrous ideal of morality involves a reverence for women, which may be exaggerated or affected, but which has at least a genuine element in it. The women on the earlier stage have comparatively a bad time of it amongst their energetic companions. Shakespeare's women are undoubtedly most admirable and lovable creatures; but they are content to take a subordinate part, and their highest virtue generally includes entire submission to the will of their lords and masters. Some, indeed, have an abundant share of the masculine temperament, like Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth; but then they are by no means model characters. Iago's description of the model woman is a cynical version of the true Shakespearian theory. Women's true sphere, according to him, or according to the modern slang, is domestic life; and if circumstances force a Cordelia, an Imogen, a Rosalind, or a Viola, to take a more active share in life, they take good care to let us know that they have a woman's heart under their man's doublet. The weaker characters in Massinger give a higher place to women, and justify it by a sentiment of chivalrous devotion. The excess, indeed, of such submissiveness is often satirised. In the 'Roman Actor,' the 'Emperor of the East,' the 'Duke of Milan,' the 'Picture,' and elsewhere, we have various phases of uxorious weakness, which suggest a possible application to the Court of Charles I. Elsewhere, as in the 'Maid of Honour' and the 'Bashful Lover,' we are called upon to sympathise with manifestations of a highflown devotion to feminine excellence. Thus, the bashful lover, who is the hero of one of his characteristic dramatic romances, is a gentleman who thinks himself scarcely worthy to touch his mistress's shoe-string. On the sight of her he exclaims—

As Moors salute The rising sun with joyful superstition, I could fall down and worship.—O my heart! Like Phoebe breaking through an envious cloud, Or something which no simile can express, She shows to me; a reverent fear, but blended With wonder and astonishment, does possess me.

When she condescends to speak to him, the utmost that he dares to ask is liberty to look at her, and he protests that he would never aspire to any higher privilege. It is gratifying to add that he follows her through many startling vicissitudes of fortune in a spirit worthy of this exordium, and of course is finally persuaded that he may allow himself a nearer approach to his goddess. The Maid of Honour has two lovers, who accept a rather similar position. One of them is unlucky enough to be always making mischief by well-meant efforts to forward her interest. He, poor man, is rather ignominiously paid off in downright cash at the end of the piece. His more favoured rival listens to the offers of a rival duchess, and ends by falling between two stools. He resigns himself to the career of a Knight of Malta, whilst the Maid of Honour herself retires into a convent. Mr. Gardiner compares this catastrophe unfavourably with that of 'Measure for Measure,' and holds that it is better for a lady to marry a duke than to give up the world as, on the whole, a bad business. A discussion of that question would involve some difficult problems. If, however, Isabella is better provided for by Shakespeare than Camiola, 'the Maid of Honour,' by Massinger, we must surely agree that the Maid of Honour has the advantage of poor Mariana, whose reunion with her hypocritical husband certainly strikes one as a questionable advantage. Her fate seems to intimate that marriage with a hypocritical tyrant ought to be regarded as better than no marriage at all. Massinger's solution is, at any rate, in harmony with the general tone of chivalrous sentiment. A woman who has been placed upon a pinnacle by overstrained devotion, cannot, consistently with her dignity, console herself like an ordinary creature of flesh and blood. When her worshippers turn unfaithful she must not look out for others. She may permit herself for once to return the affection of a worthy lover; but, when he fails, she must not condescend again to love. That would be to admit that love was a necessity of her life, not a special act of favour for some exceptional proofs of worthiness. Given the general tone of sentiment, I confess that, to my taste, Massinger's solution has the merit, not only of originality, but of harmony. It may, of course, be held that a jilted lady should, in a perfectly healthy state of society, have some other alternative besides a convent or an unworthy marriage. Some people, for example, may hold that she should be able to take to active life as a lawyer or a professor of medicine; or they may hold that love ought not to hold so prominent a part even in a woman's life that disappointed passion should involve, as a necessary consequence, the entire abandonment of the world. But, taking the romantic point of view, of which it is the very essence to set an extravagant value upon love, and remembering that Massinger had not heard of modern doctrines of woman's rights, one must admit, I think, that he really shows, by the best means in his power, a strong sense of the dignity of womanhood, and that his catastrophe is more satisfactory than the violent death or the consignment to an inferior lover which would have commended themselves to most Elizabethan dramatists.

The same vein of chivalrous sentiment gives a fine tone to some of Massinger's other plays; to the 'Bondman,' for example, and the 'Great Duke of Florence,' in both of which the treatment of lover's devotion shows a higher sense of the virtue of feminine dignity and purity than is common in the contemporary stage. There is, of course, a want of reality, an admission of extravagant motives, and an absence of dramatic concentration, which indicate an absence of high imaginative power. Chivalry, at its best, is not very reconcilable with common-sense; and the ideal hero is divided, as Cervantes shows, by very narrow distinctions from the downright madman. What was absurd in the more vigorous manifestations of the spirit does not vanish when its energy is lowered, and the rhetorician takes the place of the poet. But the sentiment is still genuine, and often gives real dignity to Massinger's eloquent speeches. It is true that, in apparent inconsistency with this excellence, passages of Massinger are even more deeply stained than usual with revolting impurities. Not only are his bad men and women apt to be offensive beyond all bearable limits, but places might be pointed out in which even his virtuous women indulge in language of the indescribable variety. The inconsistency of course admits of an easy explanation. Chivalrous sentiment by no means involves perfect purity, nor even a lofty conception of the true meaning of purity. Even a strong religious feeling of a certain kind is quite compatible with considerable laxity in this respect. Charles I. was a virtuous monarch, according to the admission of his enemies; but, as Kingsley remarks, he suggested a plot to Shirley which would certainly not be consistent with the most lax modern notions of decency. The Court of which he was the centre certainly included a good many persons who might have at once dictated Massinger's most dignified sentiments and enjoyed his worst ribaldry. Such, for example, if Clarendon's character of him be accurate, would have been the supposed 'W. H.,' the elder of the two Earls of Pembroke, with whose family Massinger was so closely connected. But it is only right to add that Massinger's errors in this kind are superficial, and might generally be removed without injury to the structure of his plays.

I have said enough to suggest the general nature of the answer which would have to be made to the problem with which I started. Beyond all doubt, it would be simply preposterous to put down Massinger as a simple product of corruption. He does not mock at generous, lofty instincts, or overlook their influence as great social forces. Mr. Ward quotes him as an instance of the connection between poetic and moral excellence. The dramatic effectiveness of his plays is founded upon the dignity of his moral sentiment; and we may recognise in him 'a man who firmly believes in the eternal difference between right and wrong.' I subscribe most willingly to the truth of Mr. Ward's general principle, and, with a certain reservation, to the correctness of this special illustration. But the reservation is an important one. After all, can anybody say honestly that he is braced and invigorated by reading Massinger's plays? Does he perceive any touch of what we feel when we have been in company, say, with Sir Walter Scott; a sense that our intellectual atmosphere is clearer than usual, and that we recognise more plainly than we are apt to do the surpassing value of manliness, honesty, and pure domestic affection? Is there not rather a sense that we have been all the time in an unnatural region, where, it is true, a sense of honour and other good qualities come in for much eloquent praise, but where, above everything, there is a marked absence of downright wholesome common-sense? Of course the effect is partly due to the region in which the old dramatists generally sought for their tragic situations. We are never quite at home in this fictitious cloudland, where the springs of action are strange, unaccountable, and altogether different from those with which we have to do in the workaday world. A great poet, indeed, weaves a magic mirror out of these dream-like materials, in which he shows us the great passions, love, and jealousy, and ambition, reflected upon a gigantic scale. But, in weaker hands, the characters become eccentric instead of typical: his vision simply distorts instead of magnifying the fundamental truths of human nature. The liberty which could be used by Shakespeare becomes dangerous for his successors. Instead of a legitimate idealisation, we have simply an abandonment of any basis in reality.

The admission that Massinger is moral must therefore be qualified by the statement that he is unnatural; or, in other words, that his morality is morbid. The groundwork of all the virtues, we are sometimes told, is strength. A strong nature may be wicked, but a weak one cannot attain any high moral level. The correlative doctrine in literature is, that the foundation of all excellence, artistic or moral, is a vivid perception of realities and a masculine grasp of facts. A man who has that essential quality will not blink the truths which we see illustrated every day around us. He will not represent vice as so ugly that it can have no charms, so foolish that it can never be plausible, or so unlucky that it can never be triumphant. The robust moralist admits that vice is often pleasant, and that wicked men flourish like a green bay-tree. He cannot be over-anxious to preach, for he feels that the intrinsic charm of high qualities can dispense with any artificial attempts to bolster them up by sham rhetoric, or to slur over the hard facts of life. He will describe Iago as impartially as Desdemona, and, having given us the facts, leave us to make what we please of them. It is the mark of a more sickly type of morality, that it must always be distorting the plain truth. It becomes sentimental, because it wishes to believe that what is pleasant must be true. It makes villains condemn themselves, because such a practice would save so much trouble to judges and moralists. Not appreciating the full force of passions, it allows the existence of grotesque and eccentric motives. It fancies that a little rhetoric will change the heart as well as the passing mood, and represents the claims of virtue as perceptible on the most superficial examination. The morality which requires such concessions becomes necessarily effeminate; it is unconsciously giving up its strongest position by implicitly admitting that the world in which virtue is possible is a very different one from our own.

The decline of the great poetic impulse does not yet reveal itself by sheer blindness to moral distinctions, or downright subservience to vice. A lowered vitality does not necessarily imply disease, though it is favourable to the development of vicious germs. The morality which flourishes in an exhausted soil is not a plant of hardy growth and tough fibre, nourished by rough common-sense, flourishing amongst the fierce contests of vigorous passions, and delighting in the open air and the broad daylight. It loves the twilight of romance, and creates heroes impulsive, eccentric, extravagant in their resolves, servile in their devotion, and whose very natures are more or less allied to weakness and luxurious self-indulgence. Massinger, indeed, depicts with much sympathy the virtues of the martyr and the penitent; he can illustrate the paradox that strength can be conquered by weakness, and violence by resignation. His good women triumph by softening the hearts of their persecutors. Their purity is more attractive than the passions of their rivals. His deserted King shows himself worthy of more loyalty than his triumphant persecutors. His Roman actor atones for his weakness by voluntarily taking part in his own punishment.

Such passive virtues are undoubtedly most praiseworthy; but they may border upon qualities not quite so praiseworthy. It is a melancholy truth that your martyr is apt to be a little sanctimonious, and that a penitent is generally a bit of a sneak. Resignation and self-restraint are admirable qualities, but admirable in proportion to the force of the opposing temptation. The strong man curbing his passions, the weak woman finding strength in patient suffering, are deserving of our deepest admiration; but in Massinger we feel that the triumph of virtue implies rather a want of passion than a power of commanding it, and that resignation is comparatively easy when it connotes an absence of active force. The general lowering of vitality, the want of rigid dramatic colouring, deprive his martyrs of that background of vigorous reality against which their virtues would be forcibly revealed. His pathos is not vivid and penetrating. Truly pathetic power is produced only when we see that it is a sentiment wrung from a powerful intellect by keen sympathy with the wrongs of life. We are affected by the tears of a strong man; but the popular preacher who enjoys weeping produces in us nothing but contempt. Massinger's heroes and heroines have not, we may say, backbone enough in them to make us care very deeply for their sorrows. And they moralise rather too freely. We do not want sermons, but sympathy, when we are in our deepest grief; and we do not feel that anyone feels very keenly who can take his sorrows for a text, and preach in his agony upon the vanity of human wishes or the excellence of resignation.

Massinger's remarkable flow of genuine eloquence, his real dignity of sentiment, his sympathy for virtuous motive, entitle him to respect; but we cannot be blind to the defect which keeps his work below the level of his greatest contemporaries. It is, in one word, a want of vital force. His writing is pitched in too low a key. He is not invigorating, stimulating, capable of fascinating us by the intensity of his conceptions. His highest range is a dignified melancholy or a certain chivalrous recognition of the noble side of human nature. The art which he represents is still a genuine and spontaneous growth instead of an artificial manufacture. He is not a mere professor of deportment, or maker of fine phrases. The days of mere affection have not yet arrived; but, on the other hand, there is an absence of that grand vehemence of soul which breathes in the spontaneous, if too lawless, vigour of the older race. There is something hollow under all this stately rhetoric; there are none of those vivid phrases which reveal minds moved by strong passions and excited by new aspects of the world. The sails of his verse are not, in Chapman's phrase, 'filled with a lusty wind,' but moving at best before a steady breath of romantic sentiment, and sometimes flapping rather ominously for want of true impulse. High thinking may still be there, but it is a little self-conscious, and in need of artificial stimulant. The old strenuous spirit has disappeared, or gone elsewhere—perhaps to excite a Puritan imagination, and create another incarnation of the old type of masculine vigour in the hero of 'Paradise Lost.'


[6] Contemporary Review for August 1876.


A double parallel has often been pointed out between the two pairs of novelists who were most popular in the middle of our own and of the preceding century. The intellectual affinity which made Smollett the favourite author of Dickens is scarcely so close as that which commended Fielding to Thackeray. The resemblance between 'Pickwick' and 'Humphrey Clinker,' or between 'David Copperfield' and 'Roderick Random,' consists chiefly in the exuberance of animal spirits, the keen eye for external oddity, the consequent tendency to substitute caricature for portrait, and the vivid transformation of autobiography into ostensible fiction, which are characteristic of both authors. Between Fielding and Thackeray the resemblance is closer. The peculiar irony of 'Jonathan Wild' has its closest English parallel in 'Barry Lyndon.' The burlesque in 'Tom Thumb' of the Lee and Dryden school of tragedy may remind us of Thackeray's burlesques of Scott and Dumas. The characters of the two authors belong to the same family. 'Vanity Fair' has grown more decent since the days of Lady Bellaston, but the costume of the actors has changed more than their nature. Rawdon Crawley would not have been surprised to meet Captain Booth in a spunging-house; Shandon and his friends preserved the old traditions of Fielding's Grub Street; Lord Steyne and Major Pendennis were survivals from the more congenial period of Lord Fellamar and Colonel James; and the two Amelias represent cognate ideals of female excellence. Or, to take an instance of similarity in detail, might not this anecdote from 'The Covent Garden Journal' have rounded off a paragraph in the 'Snob Papers?' A friend of Fielding saw a dirty fellow in a mud-cart lash another with his whip, saying, with an oath, 'I will teach you manners to your betters.' Fielding's friend wondered what could be the condition of this social inferior of a mud-cart driver, till he found him to be the owner of a dust-cart driven by asses. The great butt of Fielding's satire is, as he tells us, affectation; the affectation which he specially hates is that of straitlaced morality; Thackeray's satire is more generally directed against the particular affectation called snobbishness; but the evil principle attacked by either writer is merely one avatar of the demon assailed by the other.

The resemblance, which extends in some degree to style, might perhaps be shown to imply a very close intellectual affinity. I am content, however, to notice the literary genealogy as illustrative of the fact that Fielding was the ancestor of one great race of novelists. 'I am,' he says expressly in 'Tom Jones,' 'the founder of a new province of writing.' Richardson's 'Clarissa'[7] and Smollett's 'Roderick Random' were indeed published before 'Tom Jones;' but the provinces over which Richardson and Smollett reigned were distinct from the contiguous province of which Fielding claimed to be the first legislator. Smollett (who comes nearest) professed to imitate 'Gil Blas' as Fielding professed to imitate Cervantes. Smollett's story inherits from its ancestry a reckless looseness of construction. It is a series of anecdotes strung together by the accident that they all happen to the same person. 'Tom Jones,' on the contrary, has a carefully constructed plot, if not, as Coleridge asserts, one of the three best plots in existence (its rivals being 'Oedipus Tyrannus' and 'The Alchemist'). Its excellence depends upon the skill with which it is made subservient to the development of character and the thoroughness with which the working motives of the persons involved have been thought out. Fielding claims—even ostentatiously—that he is writing a history, not a romance; a history not the less true because all the facts are imaginary, for the fictitious incidents serve to exhibit the most general truths of human character. It is by this seriousness of purpose that his work is distinguished from the old type of novel, developed by Smollett, which is but a collection of amusing anecdotes; or from such work as De Foe's, in which the external facts are given with an almost provoking indifference to display of character and passion. Fielding's great novels have a true organic unity as well as a consecutive story, and are intended in our modern jargon as genuine studies in psychological analysis.[8]

Johnson, no mean authority when in his own sphere and free from personal bias, expressly traversed this claim; he declared that there was more knowledge of the human heart in a letter of 'Clarissa' than in the whole of 'Tom Jones;' and said more picturesquely, that Fielding could tell the hour by looking at the dial-plate, whilst Richardson knew how the clock was made.[9] It is tempting to set this down as a Johnsonian prejudice, and to deny or retort the comparison. Fielding, we might say, paints flesh and blood; whereas Richardson consciously constructs his puppets out of frigid abstractions. Lovelace is a bit of mechanism; Tom Jones a human being. In fact, however, such comparisons are misleading. Nothing is easier than to find an appropriate ticket for the objects of our criticism, and summarily pigeon-hole Richardson as an idealist and Fielding as a realist; Richardson as subjective and morbid, Fielding as objective and full of coarse health; or to attribute to either of them the deepest knowledge of the human heart. These are the mere banalities of criticism; and I can never hear them without a suspicion that a professor of aesthetics is trying to hoodwink me by a bit of technical platitude. The cant phrases which have been used so often by panegyrists too lazy to define their terms, have become almost as meaningless as the complimentary formulae of society.

Knowledge of the human heart in particular is a phrase which covers very different states of mind. It may mean that power by which the novelist or dramatist identifies himself with his characters; sees through their eyes and feels with their senses; it is the product of a rich nature, a vivid imagination, and great powers of sympathy, and draws a comparatively small part of its resources from external experience. The novelist knows how his characters would feel under given conditions, because he feels it himself; he sees from within, not from without; and is almost undergoing an actual experience instead of condensing his observations on life. This is the power in which Shakespeare is supreme; which Richardson proved himself, in his most powerful passages, to possess in no small degree; and which in Balzac seems to have generated fits of absolute hallucination.

Fielding's novels are not without proof of this power, as no great imaginative work can be possible without it; but the knowledge for which he is specially conspicuous differs almost in kind. This knowledge is drawn from observation rather than intuitive sympathy. It consists in great part of those weighty maxims which a man of keen powers of observation stores up in his passage through a varied experience. It is the knowledge of Ulysses, who has known

Cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments;

the knowledge of a Machiavelli, who has looked behind the screen of political hypocrisies; the knowledge of which the essence is distilled in Bacon's 'Essays;' or the knowledge of which Polonius seems to have retained many shrewd scraps even when he had fallen into his dotage. In reading 'Clarissa' or 'Eugenie Grandet' we are aware that the soul of Richardson or Balzac has transmigrated into another shape; that the author is projected into his character, and is really giving us one phase of his own sentiments. In reading Fielding we are listening to remarks made by a spectator instead of an actor; we are receiving the pithy recollections of the man about town; the prodigal who has been with scamps in gambling-houses, and drunk beer in pothouses and punch with country squires; the keen observer who has judged all characters, from Sir Robert Walpole down to Betsy Canning;[10] who has fought the hard battle of life with unflagging spirit, though with many falls; and who, in spite of serious stains, has preserved the goodness of his heart and the soundness of his head. The experience is generally given in the shape of typical anecdotes rather than in explicit maxims; but it is not the less distinctly the concentrated essence of observation, rather than the spontaneous play of a vivid imagination. Like Balzac, Fielding has portrayed the 'Comedie Humaine;' but his imagination has never overpowered the coolness of his judgment. He shows a superiority to his successor in fidelity almost as marked as his inferiority in vividness. And, therefore, it may be said in passing, it is refreshing to read Fielding at a time when this element of masculine observation is the one thing most clearly wanting in modern literature. Our novels give us the emotions of young ladies, which, in their way, are very good things; they reflect the sentimental view of life, and the sensational view, and the commonplace view, and the high philosophical view. One thing they do not tell us. What does the world look like to a shrewd police-magistrate, with a keen eye in his head and a sound heart in his bosom? It might be worth knowing. Perhaps (who can tell?) it would still look rather like Fielding's world.

The peculiarity is indicated by Fielding's method. Scott, who, like Fielding, generally describes from the outside, is content to keep himself in the background. 'Here,' he says to his readers, 'are the facts; make what you can of them.' Fielding will not efface himself; he is always present as chorus; he tells us what moral we ought to draw; he overflows with shrewd remarks, given in their most downright shape, instead of obliquely suggested through the medium of anecdotes; he likes to stop us as we pass through his portrait gallery; to take us by the button-hole and expound his views of life and his criticisms on things in general. His remarks are often so admirable that we prefer the interpolations to the main current of narrative. Whether this plan is the best must depend upon the idiosyncrasy of the author; but it goes some way to explain one problem, over which Scott puzzles himself—namely, why Fielding's plays are so inferior to his novels. There are other reasons, external and internal; but it is at least clear that a man who can never retire behind his puppets is not in the dramatic frame of mind. He is always lecturing where a dramatist must be content to pull the wires. Shakespeare is really as much present in his plays as Fielding in his novels; but he does not let us know it; whereas the excellent Fielding seems to be quite incapable of hiding his broad shoulders and lofty stature behind his little puppet-show.

There are, of course, actors in Fielding's world who can be trusted to speak for themselves. Tom Jones, at any rate, who is Fielding in his youth, or Captain Booth, who is the Fielding of later years, are drawn from within. Their creator's sympathy is so close and spontaneous that he has no need of his formulae and precedents. But elsewhere he betrays his method by his desire to produce his authority. You will find the explanation of a certain line of conduct, he says, in 'human nature, page almost the last.' He is a little too fond of taking down that volume with a flourish; of exhibiting his familiarity with its pages, and referring to the passages which justify his assertions. Fielding has an odd touch of the pedant. He is fond of airing his classical knowledge; and he is equally fond of quoting this imaginary code which he has had to study so thoroughly and painfully. The effect, however, is to give an air of artificiality to some of his minor characters. They show the traces of deliberate composition too distinctly, though the blemish may be forgiven in consideration of the genuine force and freshness of his thinking. If manufactured articles, they are not second-hand manufactures. His knowledge, unlike that of the good Parson Adams, comes from life, not books.

The worldly wisdom for which Fielding is so conspicuous had indeed been gathered in doubtful places, and shows traces of its origin. He had been forced, as he said, to choose between the positions of a hackney coachman and of a hackney writer. 'His genius,' said Lady M. W. Montagu, who records the saying, 'deserves a better fate.' Whether it would have been equally fertile, if favoured by more propitious surroundings, is one of those fruitless questions which belong to the boundless history of the might-have-beens. But one fact requires to be emphasised. Fielding's critics and biographers have dwelt far too exclusively upon the uglier side of his Bohemian life. They have presented him as yielding to all the temptations which can mislead keen powers of enjoyment, when the purse is one day at the lowest ebb and the next overflowing with the profits of some lucky hit at the theatre. Those unfortunate yellow liveries which contributed to dissipate his little fortune have scandalised posterity as they scandalised his country neighbours.[11] But it is essential to remember that the history of the Fielding of later years, of the Fielding to whom we owe the novels, is the record of a manful and persistent struggle to escape from the mire of Grub Street. During that period he was studying the law with the energy of a young student; redeeming the office of magistrate from the discredit into which it had fallen in the hands of fee-hunting predecessors; considering seriously, and making practical proposals to remedy, the evils which then made the lowest social strata a hell upon earth; sacrificing his last chances of health and life to put down with a strong hand the robbers who infested the streets of London; and clinging with affection to his wife and children. He never got fairly clear of that lamentable slough of despond into which his follies had plunged him. His moral tone lost what delicacy it had once possessed; he had not the strength which enabled Johnson to gain elevation even from the temptations which then beset the unlucky 'author by profession.' Some literary hacks of the day escaped only by selling themselves, body and soul; others sank into misery and vice, like poor Boyce, a fragment of whose poem has been preserved by Fielding, and who appears in literary history scribbling for pay in a sack arranged to represent a shirt. Fielding never let go his hold of the firm land, though he must have felt through life like one whose feet are always plunging into a hopeless quagmire. To describe him as a mere reckless Bohemian, is to overlook the main facts of his story. He was manly to the last, not in the sense in which man means animal; but with the manliness of one who struggles bravely to redeem early errors, and who knows the value of independence, purity, and domestic affection. The scanty anecdotes which do duty for his biography reveal little of his true life. We know, indeed, from a spiteful and obviously exaggerated story of Horace Walpole's, that he once had a very poor supper in doubtful company; and from another anecdote, of slightly apocryphal flavour, that he once gave to 'friendship' the money which ought to have been given to the collector of rates. But really to know the man, we must go to his books.

What did Fielding learn of the world which had treated him so roughly? That the world must be composed of fools because it did not bow before his genius, or of knaves because it did not reward his honesty? Men of equal ability have drawn both those and the contradictory conclusions from experience. Human nature, as philosophers assure us, varies little from age to age; but the pictures drawn by the best observers vary so strangely as to convince us that a portrait depends as much upon the artist as upon the sitter. One can see nothing but the baser, and another nothing but the nobler, passions. To one the world is like a masque representing the triumph of vice; and another placidly assures us that virtue is always rewarded by peace of mind, and that even the temporary prosperity of the wicked is an illusion. On one canvas we see a few great heroes stand out from a multitude of pygmies; on its rival, giants and dwarfs appear to have pretty much the same stature. The world is a scene of unrestrained passions impelling their puppets into collision or alliance without intelligible design; or a scene of domestic order, where an occasional catastrophe interferes as little with ordinary lives as a comet with the solar system. Blind fate governs one world of the imagination, and beneficent Providence another. The theories embodied in poetry vary as widely as the philosophies on which they are founded; and to philosophise is to declare the fundamental assumptions of half the wise men of the world to be transparent fallacies.

We need not here attempt to reconcile these apparent contradictions. As little need we attempt to settle Fielding's philosophy, for it resembles the snakes in Iceland. It seems to have been his opinion that philosophy is, as a rule, a fine word for humbug. That was a common conviction of his day; but his acceptance of it doubtless indicates the limits of his power. In his pages we have the shrewdest observation of man in his domestic relations; but we scarcely come into contact with man as he appears in presence of the infinite, and therefore with the deepest thoughts and loftiest imaginings of the great poets and philosophers. Fielding remains inflexibly in the regions of common-sense and everyday experience. But he has given an emphatic opinion of that part of the world which was visible to him, and it is one worth knowing. In a remarkable conversation, reported in Boswell, Burke and Johnson, two of the greatest of Fielding's contemporaries, seem to have agreed that they had found men less just and more generous than they could have imagined. People begin by judging the world from themselves, and it is therefore natural that two men of great intellectual power should have expected from their fellows a more than average adherence to settled principles. Thus Johnson and Burke discovered that reason, upon which justice depends, has less influence than a young reasoner is apt to fancy. On the other hand, they discovered that the blind instincts by which the mass is necessarily guided are not so bad as they are represented by the cynics. The Rochefoucauld or Mandeville who passes off his smart sayings upon the public as serious, knows better than anybody that a man must be a fool to take them literally. The wisdom which he affects is very easily learnt, and is more often the product of the premature sagacity dear to youth than of a ripened judgment. Good-hearted men, at least, like Johnson and Burke, shake off cynicism whilst others are acquiring it.

Fielding's verdict seems to differ at first sight. He undoubtedly lays great stress upon the selfishness of mankind. He seldom admits of an apparently generous action without showing its alloy of selfish motive, and sometimes showing that it is a mere cloak for selfish motives. In a characteristic passage of his 'Voyage to Lisbon' he applies his theory to his own case. When the captain falls on his knees, he will not suffer a brave man and an old man to remain for a moment in that posture, but forgives him at once. He hastens, however, utterly to disclaim all praise, on the ground that his true motive was simply the convenience of forgiveness. 'If men were wiser,' he adds, 'they would be oftener influenced by that motive.' This kind of inverted hypocrisy, which may be graceful in a man's own case (for nobody will doubt that Fielding was less guided by calculation than he asserts), is not so graceful when applied to his neighbours. And perhaps some readers may hold that Fielding pitches the average strain of human motive too low. I should rather surmise that he substantially agrees with Johnson and Burke. The fact that most men attend a good deal to their own interests is one of the primary data of life. It is a thing at which we have no more right to be astonished than at the fact that even saints and martyrs have to eat and drink like other persons, or that a sound digestion is the foundation of much moral excellence. It is one of those facts which people of a romantic turn of mind may choose to overlook, but which no honest observer of life can seriously deny. Our conduct is determined through some thirty points of the compass by our own interest; and, happily, through at least nine-and-twenty of those points is rightfully so determined. Each man is forced, by an unavoidable necessity, to look after his own and his children's bread and butter, and to spend most of his efforts on that innocent end. So long as he does not pursue his interests wrongfully, nor remain dead to other calls when they happen, there is little cause for complaint, and certainly there is none for surprise.

Fielding recognises, but never exaggerates, this homely truth. He has a hearty and generous belief in the reality of good impulses, and the existence of thoroughly unselfish men. The main actors in his world are not, as in Balzac's, mere hideous incarnations of selfishness. The superior sanity of his mind keeps him from nightmares, if its calmness is unfavourable to lofty visions. With Balzac, women like Lady Bellaston become the rule instead of the exception, and their evil passions are the dominant forces in society. Fielding, though he recognises their existence, tells us plainly that they are exceptional. Society, he says, is as moral as ever it was, and given more to frivolity than to vice[12]—a statement judiciously overlooked by some of the critics who want to make graphic history out of his novels. Fielding's mind had gathered coarseness, but it had not been poisoned. He sees how many ugly things are covered by the superficial gloss of fashion, but he does not condescend to travesty the facts in order to gratify a morbid taste for the horrible. When he wants a good man or woman he knows where to find them, and paints from Allen or his own wife with obvious sincerity and hearty sympathy. He is less anxious to exhibit human selfishness than to show us that an alloy of generosity is to be found even amidst base motives. Some of his happiest touches are illustrations of this doctrine. His villains (with a significant exception) are never monsters. They have some touch of human emotion. No desert, according to him, is so bare but that some sweet spring blends with its brackish waters. His grasping landladies have genuine movements of sympathy; and even the scoundrelly Black George, the game-keeper, is anxious to do Tom Jones a good turn, without risk, of course, to his own comfort, by way of compensation for previous injuries. It is this impartial insight into the ordinary texture of human motive that gives a certain solidity and veracity to Fielding's work. We are always made to feel that the actions spring fairly and naturally from the character of his persons, not from the exigencies of his story or the desire to be effective. The one great difficulty in 'Tom Jones' is the assumption that the excellent Allworthy should have been deceived for years by the hypocrite Blifil, and blind to the substantial kindliness of his ward. Here we may fancy that Fielding has been forced to be unnatural by his plot. Yet he suggests a satisfactory solution with admirable skill. Allworthy is prejudiced in favour of Blifil by the apparently unjust prejudice of Blifil's mother in favour of the jovial Tom. A generous man may easily become blind to the faults of a supposed victim of maternal injustice; and even here Fielding fairly escapes from the blame due to ordinary novelists, who invent impossible misunderstandings in order to bring about intricate perplexities.

Blifil is perhaps the one case (for 'Jonathan Wild' is a satire, not a history, or, as M. Taine fancies, a tract) in which Fielding seems to lose his unvarying coolness of judgment; and the explanation is obvious. The one fault to which he is, so to speak, unjust, is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, indeed, cannot well be painted too black, but it should not be made impossible. When Fielding has to deal with such a character, he for once loses his self-command, and, like inferior writers, begins to be angry with his creatures. Instead of analysing and explaining, he simply reviles and leaves us in presence of a moral anomaly. Blifil is not more wicked than Iago, but we seem to understand the psychical chemistry by which an Iago is compounded; whereas Blifil can only be regarded as a devil (if the word be not too dignified) who does not really belong to this world at all. The error, though characteristic of a man whose great intellectual merit is his firm grasp of realities, and whose favourite virtue is his downright sincerity, is not the less a blemish. Hatred of pedantry too easily leads to hatred of culture, and hatred of hypocrisy to distrust of the more exalted virtues. Fielding cannot be just to motives lying rather outside his ordinary sphere of thought. He can mock heartily and pleasantly enough at the affectation of philosophy, as in the case where Parson Adams, urging poor Joseph Andrews, by considerations drawn from the Bible and from Seneca, to be ready to resign his Fanny 'peaceably, quietly, and contentedly,' suddenly hears of the supposed loss of his own little child, and is called upon to act instead of preaching. But his satire upon all characters and creeds which embody the more exalted strains of feeling is apt to be indiscriminate. A High Churchman, according to him, is a Pharisee who prefers orthodoxy to virtue; a Methodist a mere mountebank, who counterfeits spiritual raptures to impose upon dupes; a Freethinker is a man who weaves a mask of fine phrases, under which to cover his aversion to the restraints of religion. Fielding's religion consists chiefly of a solid homespun morality, and he is more suspicious of an excessive than of a defective zeal. Similarly he is a hearty Whig, but no revolutionist. He has as hearty a contempt for the cant about liberty[13] as Dr. Johnson himself, and has very stringent remedies to propose for regulating the mob. The bailiff in 'Amelia,' who, whilst he brutally maltreats the unlucky prisoners for debt, swaggers about the British Constitution, and swears that he is 'all for liberty,' recalls the boatman who ridiculed French slavery to Voltaire, and was carried off next day by a pressgang. Fielding, indeed, is no fanatical adherent of our blessed Constitution, which, as he says, has been pronounced by some of our wisest men to be too perfect to be altered in any particular, and which a number of the said wisest men have been mending ever since. He hates cant on all sides impartially, though, as a sound Whig, he specially hates Papists and Jacobites as the most offensive of all Pharisees, marked for detestation by their taste for frogs and French wine in preference to punch and roast beef. He is a patriotic Briton, whose patriotism takes the genuine shape of a hearty growl at English abuses, with a tacit assumption that things are worse elsewhere.

The reflection of this quality of solid good sense, absolutely scorning any ailment except that of solid facts, is the so-called realism of Fielding's novels. He is, indeed, as hearty a realist as Hogarth, whose congenial art he is never tired of praising with all the cordiality of his nature, and to whom he refers his readers for portraits of several characters in 'Tom Jones.' His scenery is as realistic as a photograph. Tavern kitchens, spunging-house parlours, the back-slums of London streets, are drawn from the realities with unflinching vigour. We see the stains of beer-pots and smell the fumes of stale tobacco as distinctly as in Hogarth's engravings. He shrinks neither from the coarse nor the absolutely disgusting. It is enough to recall the female boxing or scratching matches which are so frequent in his pages. On one such occasion his language seems to imply that he had watched such battles in the spirit of a connoisseur in our own day watching less inexpressibly disgusting prize-fights. Certainly we could wish that, if such scenes were to be depicted, there might have been a clearer proof that the artist had a nose and eyes capable of feeling offence.

But the nickname 'realist' slides easily into another sense. The realist is sometimes supposed to be more shallow as well as more prosaic than the idealist; to be content with the outside where the idealist pierces to the heart. He gives the bare fact, where his rival gives the idea symbolised by the fact, and therefore rendering it attractive to the higher intellect. Fielding's view of his own art is instructive in this as in other matters. Poetic invention, he says, is generally taken to be a creative faculty; and if so, it is the peculiar property of the romance-writers, who frankly take leave of the actual and possible. Fielding disavows all claim to this faculty; he writes histories, not romances. But, in his sense, poetic invention means, not creation, but 'discovery;' that is, 'a quick, sagacious penetration into the true essence of all objects of our contemplation.' Perhaps we may say that it is chiefly a question of method whether a writer should portray men or angels—the beings, that is, of everyday life—or beings placed under a totally different set of circumstances. The more vital question is whether, by one method or the other, he shows us a man's heart or only his clothes; whether he appeals to our intellects or imaginations, or amuses us by images which do not sink below the eye. In scientific writings a man may give us the true law of a phenomenon, whether he exemplifies it in extreme or average cases, in the orbit of a comet or the fall of an apple. The romance-writer should show us what real men would be in dreamland, the writer of 'histories' what they are on the knifeboard of an omnibus. True insight may be shown in either case, or may be absent in either, according as the artist deals with the deepest organic laws or the more external accidents. The 'Ancient Mariner' is an embodiment of certain simple emotional phases and moral laws amidst the phantasmagoric incidents of a dream, and De Foe does not interpret them better because he confines himself to the most prosaic incidents. When romance becomes really arbitrary, and is parted from all basis of observation, it loses its true interest and deserves Fielding's condemnation. Fielding conscientiously aims at discharging the highest function. He describes, as he says in 'Joseph Andrews,' 'not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species.' His lawyer, he tells us, has been alive for the last four thousand years, and will probably survive four thousand more. Mrs. Tow-wouse lives wherever turbulent temper, avarice, and insensibility are united; and her sneaking husband wherever a good inclination has glimmered forth, eclipsed by poverty of spirit and understanding. But the type which shows best the force and the limits of Fielding's genius is Parson Adams. He belongs to a distinguished family, whose members have been portrayed by the greatest historians. He is a collateral descendant of Don Quixote, for whose creation Fielding felt a reverence exceeded only by his reverence for Shakespeare.[14] The resemblance is, of course, distant, and consists chiefly in this, that the parson, like the knight, lives in an ideal world, and is constantly shocked by harsh collision with facts. He believes in his sermons instead of his sword, and his imagination is tenanted by virtuous squires and model parsons instead of Arcadian shepherds, or knight-errants and fair ladies. His imagination is not exalted beyond the limits of sanity, but only colours the prosaic realities in accordance with the impulses of a tranquil benevolence. If the theme be fundamentally similar, it is treated with a far less daring hand.

Adams is much more closely related to Sir Roger de Coverley, the Vicar of Wakefield, or Uncle Toby. Each of these lovable beings invites us at once to sympathise with and to smile at the unaffected simplicity which, seeing no evil, becomes half ludicrous and half pathetic in this corrupt world. Adams stands out from his brethren by his intense reality. If he smells too distinctly of beer and tobacco, we believe in him more firmly than in the less full-blooded creations of Sterne and Goldsmith. Parson Adams, indeed, has a startling vigour of organisation. Not merely the hero of a modern ritualist novel, but Amyas Leigh or Guy Livingstone himself, might have been amazed at his athletic prowess. He stalks ahead of the stage-coach (favoured doubtless by the bad roads of the period) as though he had accepted the modern principle about fearing God and walking a thousand miles in a thousand hours. His mutton fist and the crabtree cudgel which swings so freely round his clerical head would have daunted the contemporary gladiators, Slack and Broughton. He shows his Christian humility not merely by familiarity with his poorest parishioners, but in sitting up whole nights in tavern kitchens, drinking unlimited beer, smoking inextinguishable pipes, and revelling in a ceaseless flow of gossip. We smile at the good man's intense delight in a love-story, at the simplicity which makes him see a good Samaritan in Parson Trulliber, at the absence of mind which makes him pitch his AEschylus into the fire, or walk a dozen miles in profound oblivion of the animal which should have been between his knees; but his contemporaries were provoked to a horse-laugh, and when we remark the tremendous practical jokes which his innocence suggests to them, we admit that he requires his whole athletic vigour to bring so tender a heart safely through so rough a world.

If the ideal hero is always to live in fancy-land and talk in blank verse, Adams has clearly no right to the title; nor, indeed, has Don Quixote. But the masculine portraiture of the coarse realities is not only indicative of intellectual vigour, but artistically appropriate. The contrast between the world and its simple-minded inhabitant is the more forcible in proportion to the firmness and solidity of Fielding's touch. Uncle Toby proves that Sterne had preserved enough tenderness to make an exquisite plaything of his emotions. The Vicar of Wakefield proves that Goldsmith had preserved a childlike innocence of imagination, and could retire from duns and publishers to an idyllic world of his own. Joseph Andrews proves that Fielding was neither a child nor a sentimentalist, but that he had learnt to face facts as they are, and set a true value on the best elements of human life. In the midst of vanity and vexation of spirit he could find some comfort in pure and strong domestic affection. He can indulge his feelings without introducing the false note of sentimentalism, or condescending to tone his pictures with rose-colour. He wants no illusions. The exemplary Dr. Harrison in 'Amelia' held no action unworthy of him which could protect an innocent person or 'bring a rogue to the gallows.' Good Parson Adams could lay his cudgel on the back of a villain with hearty goodwill. He believes too easily in human goodness, but there is not a maudlin fibre in his whole body. He would not be the man to cry over a dead donkey whilst children are in want of bread. He would be slower than the excellent Dr. Primrose to believe in the reformation of a villain by fine phrases, and if he fell into such a weakness, his biographer would not, like Goldsmith, be inclined to sanction the error. A villain is induced to reform, indeed, by the sight of Amelia's excellence, but Fielding is careful to tell us that the change was illusory, and that the villain ended on a gallows. We are made sensible that if Adams had his fancies they were foibles, and therefore sources of misfortune. We are to admire the childlike character, but not to share its illusions. The world is not made of moonshine. Hypocrisy, cruelty, avarice, and lust have to be stamped out by hard blows, not cured by delicate infusion of graceful sentimentalisms.

So far Fielding's portrait of an ideal character is all the better for his masculine grasp of fact. It must, however, be admitted that he fails a little on the other side of the contrast. He believes in a good heart, but scarcely in very lofty motive. He tells us in 'Tom Jones'[15] that he has painted no perfect character, because he never happened to meet one. His stories, like 'Vanity Fair,' may be described as novels without a hero. It is not merely that his characters are imperfect, but that they are deficient in the finer ingredients which go to make up the nearest approximations of our imperfect natures to heroism. Colonel Newcome was not perhaps so good a man as Parson Adams, but he had a certain delicacy of sentiment which led him, as we may remember, to be rather hard upon Tom Jones, and which Fielding (as may be gathered from Bath in 'Amelia') would have been inclined to ridicule. Parson Adams is simple enough to become a laughing-stock to the brutal, but he never consciously rebels against the dictates of the plainest common-sense. His theology comes from Tillotson and Hoadly; he has no eye for the romantic side of his creed, and would be apt to condemn a mystic as simply a fool. His loftiest aspiration is not to reform the world or any part of it, but to get a modest bit of preferment (he actually receives it, we are happy to think, in 'Amelia'), enough to pay for his tobacco and his children's schooling. Fielding's dislike to the romantic makes him rather blind to the elevated. He will not only start from the actual, but does not conceive the possibility of an infusion of loftier principles. The existing standard of sound sense prescribes an impassable limit to his imagination. Parson Adams is an admirable incarnation of certain excellent and honest impulses. He sets forth the wisdom of the heart and the beauty of the simple instincts of an affectionate nature. But we are forced to admit that he is not the highest type conceivable, and might, for example, learn something from his less robust colleague Dr. Primrose.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8     Next Part
Home - Random Browse