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Produced by A. Elizabeth Warren





LETTERS TO DEAD AUTHORS

By Andrew Lang




Contents.

I. To W. M. Thackeray
II. To Charles Dickens
III. To Pierre De Ronsard
IV. To Herodotus
V. Epistle to Mr. Alexander Pope
VI. To Lucian of Samosata
VII. To Maitre Francoys Rabelais
VIII. To Jane Austen
IX. To Master Isaak Walton
X. To M. Chapelain
XI. To Sir John Manndeville, Kt
XII. To Alexandre Dumas
XIII. To Theocritus
XIV. To Edgar Allan Poe
XV. To Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
XVI. To Eusebius of Caesarea
XVII. To Percy Bysshe Shelley
XVIII. To Monsieur De Moliére, Valet De Chambre du Roi
XIX. To Robert Burns
XX. To Lord Byron
XXI. To Omar Khayya'm
XXII. To Q. Horatius Flaccus




Preface.


Sixteen of these Letters, which were written at the suggestion of the
editor of the 'St. James's Gazette,' appeared in that journal, from
which they are now reprinted, by the editor's kind permission. They have
been somewhat emended, and a few additions have been made. The Letters
to Horace, Byron, Isaak Walton, Chapelain, Ronsard, and Theocritus have
not been published before.

The gem published for the first time on the title-page is a red
cornelian in the British Museum, probably Graeco-Roman, and treated in
an archaistic style. It represents Hermes Psychogogos, with a Soul, and
has some likeness to the Baptism of Our Lord, as usually shown in art.
Perhaps it may be post-Christian. The gem was selected by Mr. A. S.
Murray.

It is, perhaps, superfluous to add that some of the Letters are written
rather to suit the Correspondent than to express the writer's own taste
or opinions. The Epistle to Lord Byron, especially, is 'writ in a manner
which is my aversion.'




LETTERS TO DEAD AUTHORS




I. To W. M. Thackeray.



Sir, - There are many things that stand in the way of the critic when
he has a mind to praise the living. He may dread the charge of writing
rather to vex a rival than to exalt the subject of his applause. He
shuns the appearance of seeking the favour of the famous, and would not
willingly be regarded as one of the many parasites who now advertise
each movement and action of contemporary genius. 'Such and such men of
letters are passing their summer holidays in the Val d'Aosta,' or
the Mountains of the Moon, or the Suliman Range, as it may happen. So
reports our literary 'Court Circular,' and all our _Précieuses_ read the
tidings with enthusiasm. Lastly, if the critic be quite new to the world
of letters, he may superfluously fear to vex a poet or a novelist by the
abundance of his eulogy. No such doubts perplex us when, with all our
hearts, we would commend the departed; for they have passed almost
beyond the reach even of envy; and to those pale cheeks of theirs no
commendation can bring the red.

You, above all others, were and remain without a rival in your
many-sided excellence, and praise of you strikes at none of those who
have survived your day. The increase of time only mellows your renown,
and each year that passes and brings you no successor does but sharpen
the keenness of our sense of loss. In what other novelist, since
Scott was worn down by the burden of a forlorn endeavour, and died
for honour's sake, has the world found so many of the fairest gifts
combined? If we may not call you a poet (for the first of English
writers of light verse did not seek that crown), who that was less than
a poet ever saw life with a glance so keen as yours, so steady, and so
sane? Your pathos was never cheap, your laughter never forced; your
sigh was never the pulpit trick of the preacher. Your funny people - your
Costigans and Fokers - were not mere characters of trick and catch-word,
were not empty comic masks. Behind each the human heart was beating; and
ever and again we were allowed to see the features of the man.

Thus fiction in your hands was not simply a profession, like another,
but a constant reflection of the whole surface of life: a repeated echo
of its laughter and its complaint. Others have written, and not written
badly, with the stolid professional regularity of the clerk at his desk;
you, like the Scholar Gipsy, might have said that 'it needs heaven-sent
moments for this skill.' There are, it will not surprise you, some
honourable women and a few men who call you a cynic; who speak of 'the
withered world of Thackerayan satire;' who think your eyes were ever
turned to the sordid aspects of life - to the mother-in-law who threatens
to 'take away her silver bread-basket;' to the intriguer, the sneak, the
termagant; to the Beckys, and Barnes Newcomes, and Mrs. Mackenzies of
this world. The quarrel of these sentimentalists is really with life,
not with you; they might as wisely blame Monsieur Buffon because there
are snakes in his Natural History. Had you not impaled certain noxious
human insects, you would have better pleased Mr. Ruskin; had you
confined yourself to such performances, you would have been more dear to
the Neo-Balzacian school in fiction.

You are accused of never having drawn a good woman who was not a doll,
but the ladies that bring this charge seldom remind us either of Lady
Castlewood or of Theo or Hetty Lambert. The best women can pardon you
Becky Sharp and Blanche Amory; they find it harder to forgive you Emmy
Sedley and Helen Pendennis. Yet what man does not know in his heart that
the best women - God bless them - lean, in their characters, either to the
sweet passiveness of Emmy or to the sensitive and jealous affections
of Helen? 'Tis Heaven, not you, that made them so; and they are easily
pardoned, both for being a very little lower than the angels and for
their gentle ambition to be painted, as by Guido or Guercino, with wings
and harps and haloes. So ladies have occasionally seen their own
faces in the glass of fancy, and, thus inspired, have drawn Romola and
Consuelo. Yet when these fair idealists, Mdme. Sand and George Eliot,
designed Rosamund Vincy and Horace, was there not a spice of malice in
the portraits which we miss in your least favourable studies?

That the creator of Colonel Newcome and of Henry Esmond was a snarling
cynic; that he who designed Rachel Esmond could not draw a good woman:
these are the chief charges (all indifferent now to you, who were once
so sensitive) that your admirers have to contend against. A French
critic, M. Taine, also protests that you do preach too much. Did any
author but yourself so frequently break the thread (seldom a strong
thread) of his plot to converse with his reader and moralise his tale,
we also might be offended. But who that loves Montaigne and Pascal, who
that likes the wise trifling of the one and can bear with the melancholy
of the other, but prefers your preaching to another's playing!

Your thoughts come in, like the intervention of the Greek Chorus, as an
ornament and source of fresh delight. Like the songs of the Chorus, they
bid us pause a moment over the wider laws and actions of human fate and
human life, and we turn from your persons to yourself, and again from
yourself to your persons, as from the odes of Sophocles or Aristophanes
to the action of their characters on the stage. Nor, to my taste, does
the mere music and melancholy dignity of your style in these passages of
meditation fall far below the highest efforts of poetry. I remember
that scene where Clive, at Barnes Newcome's Lecture on the Poetry of the
Affections, sees Ethel who is lost to him. 'And the past and its dear
histories, and youth and its hopes and passions, and tones and looks for
ever echoing in the heart and present in the memory - these, no doubt,
poor Clive saw and heard as he looked across the great gulf of time, and
parting and grief, and beheld the wonmn he had loved for many years.'

_For ever echoing in the heart and present in the memory:_ who has not
heard these tones, who does not hear them as he turns over your books
that, for so many years, have been his companions and comforters? We
have been young and old, we have been sad and merry with you, we have
listened to the mid-night chimes with Pen and Warrington, have stood
with you beside the death-bed, have mourned at that yet more awful
funeral of lost love, and with you have prayed in the inmost chapel
sacred to our old and immortal affections, _a' léal souvenir!_ And
whenever you speak for yourself, and speak in earnest, how magical, how
rare, how lonely in our literature is the beauty of your sentences! 'I
can't express the charm of them' (so you write of George Sand; so we
may write of you): 'they seem to me like the sound of country bells,
provoking I don't know what vein of music and meditation, and falling
sweetly and sadly on the ear.' Surely that style, so fresh, so rich, so
full of surprises - that style which stamps as classical your fragments
of slang, and perpetually astonishes and delights - would alone give
immortality to an author, even had he little to say. But you, with your
whole wide world of fops and fools, of good women and brave men, of
honest absurdities and cheery adventurers: you who created the Steynes
and Newcomes, the Beckys and Blanches, Captain Costigan and F. B., and
the Chevalier Strong - all that host of friends imperishable - you must
survive with Shakespeare and Cervantes in the memory and affection of
men.




II. To Charles Dickens.



Sir, - It has been said that every man is born a Platonist or an
Aristotelian, though the enormous majority of us, to be sure, live and
die without being conscious of any invidious philosophic partiality
whatever. With more truth (though that does not imply very much) every
Englishman who reads may be said to be a partisan of yourself or of Mr.
Thackeray. Why should there be any partisanship in the matter; and
why, having two such good things as your novels and those of your
contemporary, should we not be silently happy in the possession? Well,
men are made so, and must needs fight and argue over their tastes in
enjoyment. For myself, I may say that in this matter I am what the
Americans do not call a 'Mugwump,' what English politicians dub a
'superior person' - that is, I take no side, and attempt to enjoy the
best of both.

It must be owned that this attitude is sometimes made a little difficult
by the vigour of your special devotees. They have ceased, indeed, thank
Heaven! to imitate you; and even in 'descriptive articles' the touch
of Mr. Gigadibs, of him whom 'we almost took for the true Dickens,'
has disappeared. The young lions of the Press no longer mimic your less
admirable mannerisms - do not strain so much after fantastic comparisons,
do not (in your manner and Mr. Carlyle's) give people nick-names derived
from their teeth, or their complexion; and, generally, we are spared
second-hand copies of all that in your style was least to be commended.
But, though improved by lapse of time in this respect, your devotees
still put on little conscious airs of virtue, robust manliness, and so
forth, which would have irritated you very much, and there survive some
press men who seem to have read you a little (especially your later
works), and never to have read anything else. Now familiarity with the
pages of 'Our Mutual Friend'and 'Dombey and Son' does not precisely
constitute a liberal education, and the assumption that it does is apt
(quite unreasonably) to prejudice people against the greatest comic
genius of modern times.

On the other hand, Time is at last beginning to sift the true admirers
of Dickens from the false. Yours, Sir, in the best sense of the word, is
a popular success, a popular reputation. For example, I know that, in a
remote and even Pictish part of this kingdom, a rural household, humble
and under the shadow of a sorrow inevitably approaching, has found in
'David Copperfield' oblivion of winter, of sorrow, and of sickness. On
the other hand, people are now picking up heart to say that 'they cannot
read Dickens,' and that they particularly detest 'Pickwick.' I believe
it was young ladies who first had the courage of their convictions in
this respect. 'Tout sied aux belles,' and the fair, in the confidence of
youth, often venture on remarkable confessions. In your 'Natural History
of Young Ladies' I do not remember that you describe the Humorous Young
Lady (1). She is a very rare bird indeed, and humour generally is at a
deplorably low level in England.


(1) I am informed that the _Natural History of Young
Ladies_ is attributed, by some writers, to another
philosopher, the author of _The Art of Pluck_.


Hence come all sorts of mischief, arisen since you left us; and, it
may be said, that inordinate philanthropy, genteel sympathy with Irish
murder and arson, Societies for Badgering the Poor, Esoteric
Buddhism, and a score of other plagues, including what was once called
Aestheticism, are all, primarily, due to want of humour. People discuss,
with the gravest faces, matters which properly should only be stated
as the wildest paradoxes. It naturally follows that, in a period almost
destitute of humour, many respectable persons 'cannot read Dickens,' and
are not ashamed to glory in their shame. We ought not to be angry with
others for their misfortunes; and yet when one meets the _crétins_ who
boast that they cannot read Dickens, one certainly does feel much as Mr.
Samuel Weller felt when he encountered Mr. Job Trotter.

How very singular has been the history of the decline of humour. Is
there any profound psychological truth to be gathered from consideration
of the fact that humour has gone out with cruelty? A hundred years ago,
eighty years ago - nay, fifty years ago - we were a cruel but also
a humorous people. We had bull-baitings, and badger-drawings, and
hustings, and prize-fights, and cock-fights; we went to see men hanged;
the pillory and the stocks were no empty 'terrors unto evil-doers,' for
there was commonly a malefactor occupying each of these institutions.
With all this we had a broad blown comic sense. We had Ho-garth, and
Bunbury, and George Cruikshank, and Gilray; we had Leech and Surtees,
and the creator of Tittlebat Titmouse; we had the Shepherd of the
'Noctes,' and, above all, we had _you_.

From the old giants of English fun - burly persons delighting in broad
caricature, in decided colours, in cockney jokes, in swashing blows at
the more prominent and obvious human follies - from these you derived the
splendid high spirits and unhesitating mirth of your earlier works. Mr.
Squeers, and Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and all the Pickwickians, and
Mr. Dowler, and John Browdie - these and their immortal companions were
reared, so to speak, on the beef and beer of that naughty, fox-hunting,
badger-baiting old England, which we have improved out of existence.
And these characters, assuredly, are your best; by them, though stupid
people cannot read about them, you will live while there is a laugh left
among us. Perhaps that does not assure you a very prolonged existence,
but only the future can show.

The dismal seriousness of the time cannot, let us hope, last for ever
and a day. Honest old Laughter, the true _lutin_ of your inspiration,
must have life left in him yet, and cannot die; though it is true that
the taste for your pathos, and your melodrama, and plots constructed
after your favourite fashion ('Great Expectations' and the 'Tale of Two
Cities' are exceptions) may go by and never be regretted. Were people
simpler, or only less clear-sighted, as far as your pathos is concerned,
a generation ago? Jeffrey, the hard-headed shallow critic, who declared
that Wordsworth 'would never do,' cried, 'wept like anything,' over your
Little Nell. One still laughs as heartily as ever with Dick Swiveller;
but who can cry over Little Nell?

Ah, Sir, how could you - who knew so intimately, who remembered so
strangely well the fancies, the dreams, the sufferings of childhood - how
could you 'wallow naked in the pathetic,' and massacre holocausts of the
Innocents? To draw tears by gloating over a child's death-bed, was it
worthy of you? Was it the kind of work over which our hearts should
melt? I confess that Little Nell might die a dozen times, and be
welcomed by whole legions of Angels, and I (like the bereaved fowl
mentioned by Pet Marjory) would remain unmoved.

She was more than usual calm,
She did not give a single dam,

wrote the astonishing child who diverted the leisure of Scott. Over your
Little Nell and your Little Dombey I remain more than usual calm; and
probably so do thousands of your most sincere admirers. But about matter
of this kind, and the unsealing of the fountains of tears, who can
argue? Where is taste? where is truth? What tears are 'manly, Sir,
manly,' as Fred Bayham has it; and of what lamentations ought we rather
to be ashamed? _Sunt lacrymae rerum_; one has been moved in the cell
where Socrates tasted the hemlock; or by the river-banks where Syracusan
arrows slew the parched Athenians among the mire and blood; or, in
fiction, when Colonel Newcome said _Adsum_, or over the diary of Clare
Doria Forey, or where Aramis laments, with strange tears, the death
of Porthos. But over Dombey (the Son), or Little Nell, one declines to
snivel.

When an author deliberately sits down and says, 'Now, let us have a good
cry,' he poisons the wells of sensibility and chokes, at least in many
breasts, the fountain of tears. Out of 'Dombey and Son' there is little
we care to remember except the deathless Mr. Toots; just as we forget
the melodramatics of 'Martin Chuzzlewit.' I have read in that book a
score of times; I never see it but I revel in it - in Pecksniff, and Mrs.
Gamp, and the Americans. But what the plot is all about, what Jonas did,
what Montagu Tigg had to make in the matter, what all the pictures with
plenty of shading illustrate, I have never been able to comprehend. In
the same way, one of your most thorough-going admirers has allowed (in
the licence of private conversation) that 'Ralph Nickleby and Monk are
too steep;' and probably a cultivated taste will always find them a
little precipitous.

'Too steep:' - the slang expresses that defect of an ardent genius,
carried above itself, and out of the air we breathe, both in its
grotesque and in its gloomy imaginations. To force the note, to press
fantasy too hard, to deepen the gloom with black over the indigo, that
was the failing which proved you mortal. To take an instance in little:
when Pip went to Mr. Pumblechook's, the boy thought the seedsman 'a very
happy man to have so many little drawers in his shop.' The reflection
is thoroughly boyish; but then you add, 'I wondered whether the
flower-seeds and bulbs ever wanted of a fine day to break out of those
jails and bloom.' That is not boyish at all; that is the hard-driven,
jaded literary fancy at work.

'So we arraign her; but she,' the Genius of Charles Dickens, how
brilliant, how kindly, how beneficent she is! dwelling by a fountain of
laughter imperishable; though there is something of an alien salt in the
neighbouring fountain of tears. How poor the world of fancy would be,
how 'dispeopled of her dreams,' if, in some ruin of the social system,
the books of Dickens were lost; and if The Dodger, and Charley Bates,
and Mr. Crinkle, and Miss Squeers, and Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and
Dick Swiveller were to perish, or to vanish with Menander's men and
women! We cannot think of our world without them; and, children of
dreams as they are, they seem more essential than great statesmen,
artists, soldiers, who have actually worn flesh and blood, ribbons and
orders, gowns and uniforms. May we not almost welcome 'Free Education'?
for every Englishman who can read, unless he be an Ass, is a reader the
more for you.




III. To Pierre de Ronsard (Prince of Poets.)



Master and Prince of Poets, - As we know what choice thou madest of a
sepulchre (a choice how ill fulfilled by the jealousy of Fate), so we
know well the manner of thy chosen immortality. In the Plains Elysian,
among the heroes and the ladies of old song, there was thy Love with
thee to enjoy her paradise in an eternal spring.

La' du plaisant Avril la saison imortelle
Sans eschange le suit,
La terre sans labeur, de sa grasse mamelle,
Tout chose y produit;
D'enbas la troupe sainte autrefois amoureuse,
Nous honorant sur tous,
Viendra nous saluer, s'estimant bien-heureuse
De s'accointer de nous.

There thou dwellest, with the learned lovers of old days, with Belleau,
and Du Bellay, and Bai'f, and the flower of the maidens of Anjou. Surely
no rumour reaches thee, in that happy place of reconciled affections, no
rumour of the rudeness of Time, the despite of men, and the change which
stole from thy locks, so early grey, the crown of laurels and of thine
own roses. How different from thy choice of a sepulchre have been the
fortunes of thy tomb!

I will that none should break
The marble for my sake,
Wishful to make more fair
My sepulchre.

So didst thou sing, or so thy sweet numbers run in my rude English. Wearied
of Courts and of priories, thou didst desire a grave beside thine own
Loire, not remote from

The caves, the founts that fall
From the high mountain wall,
That fall and flash and fleet,
Wilh silver fret.

Only a laurel tree
Shall guard the grave of me;
Only Apollo's bough
Shall shade me now!

Far other has been thy sepulchre: not in the free air, among the field
flowers, but in thy priory of Saint Cosme, with marble for a monument,
and no green grass to cover thee. Restless wert thou in thy life; thy
dust was not to be restful in thy death. The Huguenots, _ces nouveaux
Chrétiens qui la France ont pillée_, destroyed thy tomb, and the warning
of the later monument,

ABI, NEFASTE, QUAM CALCAS HUMUM SACRA EST,

has not scared away malicious men. The storm that passed over France a
hundred years ago, more terrible than the religious wars that thou didst
weep for, has swept the column from the tomb. The marble was broken by
violent hands, and the shattered sepulchre of the Prince of Poets gained
a dusty hospitality from the museum of a country town. Better had been
the laurel of thy desire, the creeping vine, and the ivy tree.

Scarce more fortunate, for long, than thy monument was thy memory.
Thou hast not encountered, Master, in the Paradise of Poets, Messieurs
Malherbe, De Balzac, and Boileau - Boileau who spoke of thee as _Ce poéte
orgueilleux trébuché de si haut!_

These gallant gentlemen, I make no doubt, are happy after their own
fashion, backbiting each other and thee in the Paradise of Critics. In
their time they wrought thee much evil, grumbling that thou wrotest in
Greek and Latin (of which tongues certain of them had but little skill),
and blaming thy many lyric melodies and the free flow of thy lines. What
said M. de Balzac to M. Chapelain? 'M. de Malherbe, M. de Grasse, and
yourself must be very little poets, if Ronsard be a great one.' Time has
brought in his revenges, and Messieurs Chapelain and De Grasse are as
well forgotten as thou art well remembered. Men could not always be deaf
to thy sweet old songs, nor blind to the beauty of thy roses and thy
loves. When they took the wax out of their ears that M. Boileau had
given them lest they should hear the singing of thy Sirens, then they
were deaf no longer, then they heard the old deaf poet singing and made
answer to his lays. Hast thou not heard these sounds? have they not
reached thee, the voices and the lyres of Théophile Gautier and Alfred
de Musset? Methinks thou hast marked them, and been glad that the old
notes were ringing again and the old French lyric measures tripping to
thine ancient harmonies, echoing and replying to the Muses of Horace and
Catullus. Returning to Nature, poets returned to thee. Thy monument has
perished, but not thy music, and the Prince of Poets has returned to his
own again in a glorious Restoration.

Through the dust and smoke of ages, and through the centuries of wars we
strain our eyes and try to gain a glimpse of thee, Master, in thy good
days, when the Muses walked with thee. We seem to mark thee wandering
silent through some little village, or dreaming in the woods, or
loitering among thy lonely places, or in gardens where the roses blossom
among wilder flowers, or on river banks where the whispering poplars and
sighing reeds make answer to the murmur of the waters. Such a picture
hast thou drawn of thyself in the summer afternoons.

Je m'en vais pourmener tantost parmy la plaine,


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