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No. 61






_A complete classified list of the volumes of The Home University
Library already published to be found at the back of this book._


















The Editors wish to explain that this book is not put forward as an
authoritative history of Victorian literature. It is a free and personal
statement of views and impressions about the significance of Victorian
literature made by Mr. Chesterton at the Editors' express invitation.



A section of a long and splendid literature can be most conveniently
treated in one of two ways. It can be divided as one cuts a currant cake
or a Gruyère cheese, taking the currants (or the holes) as they come. Or
it can be divided as one cuts wood - along the grain: if one thinks that
there is a grain. But the two are never the same: the names never come
in the same order in actual time as they come in any serious study of a
spirit or a tendency. The critic who wishes to move onward with the life
of an epoch, must be always running backwards and forwards among its
mere dates; just as a branch bends back and forth continually; yet the
grain in the branch runs true like an unbroken river.

Mere chronological order, indeed, is almost as arbitrary as alphabetical
order. To deal with Darwin, Dickens, Browning, in the sequence of the
birthday book would be to forge about as real a chain as the "Tacitus,
Tolstoy, Tupper" of a biographical dictionary. It might lend itself
more, perhaps, to accuracy: and it might satisfy that school of critics
who hold that every artist should be treated as a solitary craftsman,
indifferent to the commonwealth and unconcerned about moral things. To
write on that principle in the present case, however, would involve all
those delicate difficulties, known to politicians, which beset the
public defence of a doctrine which one heartily disbelieves. It is quite
needless here to go into the old "art for art's sake" - business, or
explain at length why individual artists cannot be reviewed without
reference to their traditions and creeds. It is enough to say that with
other creeds they would have been, for literary purposes, other
individuals. Their views do not, of course, make the brains in their
heads any more than the ink in their pens. But it is equally evident
that mere brain-power, without attributes or aims, a wheel revolving in
the void, would be a subject about as entertaining as ink. The moment we
differentiate the minds, we must differentiate by doctrines and moral
sentiments. A mere sympathy for democratic merry-making and mourning
will not make a man a writer like Dickens. But without that sympathy
Dickens would not be a writer like Dickens; and probably not a writer at
all. A mere conviction that Catholic thought is the clearest as well as
the best disciplined, will not make a man a writer like Newman. But
without that conviction Newman would not be a writer like Newman; and
probably not a writer at all. It is useless for the æsthete (or any
other anarchist) to urge the isolated individuality of the artist, apart
from his attitude to his age. His attitude to his age is his
individuality: men are never individual when alone.

It only remains for me, therefore, to take the more delicate and
entangled task; and deal with the great Victorians, not only by dates
and names, but rather by schools and streams of thought. It is a task
for which I feel myself wholly incompetent; but as that applies to every
other literary enterprise I ever went in for, the sensation is not
wholly novel: indeed, it is rather reassuring than otherwise to realise
that I am now doing something that nobody could do properly. The chief
peril of the process, however, will be an inevitable tendency to make
the spiritual landscape too large for the figures. I must ask for
indulgence if such criticism traces too far back into politics or ethics
the roots of which great books were the blossoms; makes Utilitarianism
more important than _Liberty_ or talks more of the Oxford Movement than
of _The Christian Year_. I can only answer in the very temper of the
age of which I write: for I also was born a Victorian; and sympathise
not a little with the serious Victorian spirit. I can only answer, I
shall not make religion more important than it was to Keble, or politics
more sacred than they were to Mill.



The previous literary life of this country had left vigorous many old
forces in the Victorian time, as in our time. Roman Britain and Mediæval
England are still not only alive but lively; for real development is not
leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as from
a root. Even when we improve we never progress. For progress, the
metaphor from the road, implies a man leaving his home behind him: but
improvement means a man exalting the towers or extending the gardens of
his home. The ancient English literature was like all the several
literatures of Christendom, alike in its likeness, alike in its very
unlikeness. Like all European cultures, it was European; like all
European cultures, it was something more than European. A most marked
and unmanageable national temperament is plain in Chaucer and the
ballads of Robin Hood; in spite of deep and sometimes disastrous changes
of national policy, that note is still unmistakable in Shakespeare, in
Johnson and his friends, in Cobbett, in Dickens. It is vain to dream of
defining such vivid things; a national soul is as indefinable as a
smell, and as unmistakable. I remember a friend who tried impatiently to
explain the word "mistletoe" to a German, and cried at last, despairing,
"Well, you know holly - mistletoe's the opposite!" I do not commend this
logical method in the comparison of plants or nations. But if he had
said to the Teuton, "Well, you know Germany - England's the
opposite" - the definition, though fallacious, would not have been wholly
false. England, like all Christian countries, absorbed valuable elements
from the forests and the rude romanticism of the North; but, like all
Christian countries, it drank its longest literary draughts from the
classic fountains of the ancients: nor was this (as is so often loosely
thought) a matter of the mere "Renaissance." The English tongue and
talent of speech did not merely flower suddenly into the gargantuan
polysyllables of the great Elizabethans; it had always been full of the
popular Latin of the Middle Ages. But whatever balance of blood and
racial idiom one allows, it is really true that the only suggestion that
gets near the Englishman is to hint how far he is from the German. The
Germans, like the Welsh, can sing perfectly serious songs perfectly
seriously in chorus: can with clear eyes and clear voices join together
in words of innocent and beautiful personal passion, for a false maiden
or a dead child. The nearest one can get to defining the poetic temper
of Englishmen is to say that they couldn't do this even for beer. They
can sing in chorus, and louder than other Christians: but they must have
in their songs something, I know not what, that is at once shamefaced
and rowdy. If the matter be emotional, it must somehow be also broad,
common and comic, as "Wapping Old Stairs" and "Sally in Our Alley." If
it be patriotic, it must somehow be openly bombastic and, as it were,
indefensible, like "Rule Britannia" or like that superb song (I never
knew its name, if it has one) that records the number of leagues from
Ushant to the Scilly Isles. Also there is a tender love-lyric called "O
Tarry Trousers" which is even more English than the heart of _The
Midsummer Night's Dream_. But our greatest bards and sages have often
shown a tendency to rant it and roar it like true British sailors; to
employ an extravagance that is half conscious and therefore half
humorous. Compare, for example, the rants of Shakespeare with the rants
of Victor Hugo. A piece of Hugo's eloquence is either a serious triumph
or a serious collapse: one feels the poet is offended at a smile. But
Shakespeare seems rather proud of talking nonsense: I never can read
that rousing and mounting description of the storm, where it comes to -

"Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and _hanging_ them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds."

without seeing an immense balloon rising from the ground, with
Shakespeare grinning over the edge of the car, and saying, "You can't
stop me: I am above reason now." That is the nearest we can get to the
general national spirit, which we have now to follow through one brief
and curious but very national episode.

Three years before the young queen was crowned, William Cobbett was
buried at Farnham. It may seem strange to begin with this great
neglected name, rather than the old age of Wordsworth or the young death
of Shelley. But to any one who feels literature as human, the empty
chair of Cobbett is more solemn and significant than the throne. With
him died the sort of democracy that was a return to Nature, and which
only poets and mobs can understand. After him Radicalism is urban - and
Toryism suburban. Going through green Warwickshire, Cobbett might have
thought of the crops and Shelley of the clouds. But Shelley would have
called Birmingham what Cobbett called it - a hell-hole. Cobbett was one
with after Liberals in the ideal of Man under an equal law, a citizen of
no mean city. He differed from after Liberals in strongly affirming that
Liverpool and Leeds are mean cities.

It is no idle Hibernianism to say that towards the end of the eighteenth
century the most important event in English history happened in France.
It would seem still more perverse, yet it would be still more precise,
to say that the most important event in English history was the event
that never happened at all - the English Revolution on the lines of the
French Revolution. Its failure was not due to any lack of fervour or
even ferocity in those who would have brought it about: from the time
when the first shout went up for Wilkes to the time when the last
Luddite fires were quenched in a cold rain of rationalism, the spirit of
Cobbett, of rural republicanism, of English and patriotic democracy,
burned like a beacon. The revolution failed because it was foiled by
another revolution; an aristocratic revolution, a victory of the rich
over the poor. It was about this time that the common lands were finally
enclosed; that the more cruel game laws were first established; that
England became finally a land of landlords instead of common
land-owners. I will not call it a Tory reaction; for much of the worst
of it (especially of the land-grabbing) was done by Whigs; but we may
certainly call it Anti-Jacobin. Now this fact, though political, is not
only relevant but essential to everything that concerned literature. The
upshot was that though England was full of the revolutionary ideas,
nevertheless there was no revolution. And the effect of this in turn was
that from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the
nineteenth the spirit of revolt in England took a wholly literary form.
In France it was what people did that was wild and elemental; in England
it was what people wrote. It is a quaint comment on the notion that the
English are practical and the French merely visionary, that we were
rebels in arts while they were rebels in arms.

It has been well and wittily said (as illustrating the mildness of
English and the violence of French developments) that the same Gospel of
Rousseau which in France produced the Terror, in England produced
_Sandford and Merton_. But people forget that in literature the English
were by no means restrained by Mr. Barlow; and that if we turn from
politics to art, we shall find the two parts peculiarly reversed. It
would be equally true to say that the same eighteenth-century
emancipation which in France produced the pictures of David, in England
produced the pictures of Blake. There never were, I think, men who gave
to the imagination so much of the sense of having broken out into the
very borderlands of being, as did the great English poets of the
romantic or revolutionary period; than Coleridge in the secret sunlight
of the Antarctic, where the waters were like witches' oils; than Keats
looking out of those extreme mysterious casements upon that ultimate
sea. The heroes and criminals of the great French crisis would have been
quite as incapable of such imaginative independence as Keats and
Coleridge would have been incapable of winning the battle of Wattignies.
In Paris the tree of liberty was a garden tree, clipped very correctly;
and Robespierre used the razor more regularly than the guillotine.
Danton, who knew and admired English literature, would have cursed
freely over _Kubla Khan_; and if the Committee of Public Safety had not
already executed Shelley as an aristocrat, they would certainly have
locked him up for a madman. Even Hébert (the one really vile
Revolutionist), had he been reproached by English poets with worshipping
the Goddess of Reason, might legitimately have retorted that it was
rather the Goddess of Unreason that they set up to be worshipped.
Verbally considered, Carlyle's _French Revolution_ was more
revolutionary than the real French Revolution: and if Carrier, in an
exaggerative phrase, empurpled the Loire with carnage, Turner almost
literally set the Thames on fire.

This trend of the English Romantics to carry out the revolutionary idea
not savagely in works, but very wildly indeed in words, had several
results; the most important of which was this. It started English
literature after the Revolution with a sort of bent towards independence
and eccentricity, which in the brighter wits became individuality, and
in the duller ones, Individualism. English Romantics, English Liberals,
were not public men making a republic, but poets, each seeing a vision.
The lonelier version of liberty was a sort of aristocratic anarchism in
Byron and Shelley; but though in Victorian times it faded into much
milder prejudices and much more _bourgeois_ crotchets, England retained
from that twist a certain odd separation and privacy. England became
much more of an island than she had ever been before. There fell from
her about this time, not only the understanding of France or Germany,
but to her own long and yet lingering disaster, the understanding of
Ireland. She had not joined in the attempt to create European democracy;
nor did she, save in the first glow of Waterloo, join in the
counter-attempt to destroy it. The life in her literature was still, to
a large extent, the romantic liberalism of Rousseau, the free and humane
truisms that had refreshed the other nations, the return to Nature and
to natural rights. But that which in Rousseau was a creed, became in
Hazlitt a taste and in Lamb little more than a whim. These latter and
their like form a group at the beginning of the nineteenth century of
those we may call the Eccentrics: they gather round Coleridge and his
decaying dreams or linger in the tracks of Keats and Shelley and Godwin;
Lamb with his bibliomania and creed of pure caprice, the most unique of
all geniuses; Leigh Hunt with his Bohemian impecuniosity; Landor with
his tempestuous temper, throwing plates on the floor; Hazlitt with his
bitterness and his low love affair; even that healthier and happier
Bohemian, Peacock. With these, in one sense at least, goes De Quincey.
He was, unlike most of these embers of the revolutionary age in letters,
a Tory; and was attached to the political army which is best represented
in letters by the virile laughter and leisure of Wilson's _Noctes
Ambrosianæ_. But he had nothing in common with that environment. It
remained for some time as a Tory tradition, which balanced the cold and
brilliant aristocracy of the Whigs. It lived on the legend of Trafalgar;
the sense that insularity was independence; the sense that anomalies are
as jolly as family jokes; the general sense that old salts are the salt
of the earth. It still lives in some old songs about Nelson or Waterloo,
which are vastly more pompous and vastly more sincere than the cockney
cocksureness of later Jingo lyrics. But it is hard to connect De Quincey
with it; or, indeed, with anything else. De Quincey would certainly have
been a happier man, and almost certainly a better man, if he had got
drunk on toddy with Wilson, instead of getting calm and clear (as he
himself describes) on opium, and with no company but a book of German
metaphysics. But he would hardly have revealed those wonderful vistas
and perspectives of prose, which permit one to call him the first and
most powerful of the decadents: those sentences that lengthen out like
nightmare corridors, or rise higher and higher like impossible eastern
pagodas. He was a morbid fellow, and far less moral than Burns; for when
Burns confessed excess he did not defend it. But he has cast a gigantic
shadow on our literature, and was as certainly a genius as Poe. Also he
had humour, which Poe had not. And if any one still smarting from the
pinpricks of Wilde or Whistler, wants to convict them of plagiarism in
their "art for art" epigrams - he will find most of what they said said
better in _Murder as One of the Fine Arts_.

One great man remains of this elder group, who did their last work only
under Victoria; he knew most of the members of it, yet he did not belong
to it in any corporate sense. He was a poor man and an invalid, with
Scotch blood and a strong, though perhaps only inherited, quarrel with
the old Calvinism; by name Thomas Hood. Poverty and illness forced him
to the toils of an incessant jester; and the revolt against gloomy
religion made him turn his wit, whenever he could, in the direction of
a defence of happier and humaner views. In the long great roll that
includes Homer and Shakespeare, he was the last great man who really
employed the pun. His puns were not all good (nor were Shakespeare's),
but the best of them were a strong and fresh form of art. The pun is
said to be a thing of two meanings; but with Hood there were three
meanings, for there was also the abstract truth that would have been
there with no pun at all. The pun of Hood is underrated, like the "wit"
of Voltaire, by those who forget that the words of Voltaire were not
pins, but swords. In Hood at his best the verbal neatness only gives to
the satire or the scorn a ring of finality such as is given by rhyme.
For rhyme does go with reason, since the aim of both is to bring things
to an end. The tragic necessity of puns tautened and hardened Hood's
genius; so that there is always a sort of shadow of that sharpness
across all his serious poems, falling like the shadow of a sword.
"Sewing at once with a double thread a shroud as well as a shirt" - "We
thought her dying when she slept, and sleeping when she died" - "Oh God,
that bread should be so dear and flesh and blood so cheap" - none can
fail to note in these a certain fighting discipline of phrase, a
compactness and point which was well trained in lines like "A
cannon-ball took off his legs, so he laid down his arms." In France he
would have been a great epigrammatist, like Hugo. In England he is a

There was nothing at least in this group I have loosely called the
Eccentrics that disturbs the general sense that all their generation was
part of the sunset of the great revolutionary poets. This fading glamour
affected England in a sentimental and, to some extent, a snobbish
direction; making men feel that great lords with long curls and whiskers
were naturally the wits that led the world. But it affected England also
negatively and by reaction; for it associated such men as Byron with
superiority, but not with success. The English middle classes were led
to distrust poetry almost as much as they admired it. They could not
believe that either vision at the one end or violence at the other could
ever be practical. They were deaf to that great warning of Hugo: "You
say the poet is in the clouds; but so is the thunderbolt." Ideals
exhausted themselves in the void; Victorian England, very unwisely,
would have no more to do with idealists in politics. And this, chiefly,
because there had been about these great poets a young and splendid
sterility; since the pantheist Shelley was in fact washed under by the
wave of the world, or Byron sank in death as he drew the sword for

The chief turn of nineteenth-century England was taken about the time
when a footman at Holland House opened a door and announced "Mr.
Macaulay." Macaulay's literary popularity was representative and it was
deserved; but his presence among the great Whig families marks an
epoch. He was the son of one of the first "friends of the negro," whose
honest industry and philanthropy were darkened by a religion of sombre
smugness, which almost makes one fancy they loved the negro for his
colour, and would have turned away from red or yellow men as needlessly
gaudy. But his wit and his politics (combined with that dropping of the
Puritan tenets but retention of the Puritan tone which marked his class
and generation), lifted him into a sphere which was utterly opposite to
that from which he came. This Whig world was exclusive; but it was not
narrow. It was very difficult for an outsider to get into it; but if he
did get into it he was in a much freer atmosphere than any other in
England. Of those aristocrats, the Old Guard of the eighteenth century,
many denied God, many defended Bonaparte, and nearly all sneered at the
Royal Family. Nor did wealth or birth make any barriers for those once
within this singular Whig world. The platform was high, but it was
level. Moreover the upstart nowadays pushes himself by wealth: but the
Whigs could choose their upstarts. In that world Macaulay found Rogers,
with his phosphorescent and corpse-like brilliancy; there he found
Sydney Smith, bursting with crackers of common sense, an admirable old
heathen; there he found Tom Moore, the romantic of the Regency, a
shortened shadow of Lord Byron. That he reached this platform and
remained on it is, I say, typical of a turning-point in the century. For
the fundamental fact of early Victorian history was this: the decision
of the middle classes to employ their new wealth in backing up a sort of
aristocratical compromise, and not (like the middle class in the French
Revolution) insisting on a clean sweep and a clear democratic programme.
It went along with the decision of the aristocracy to recruit itself
more freely from the middle class. It was then also that Victorian
"prudery" began: the great lords yielded on this as on Free Trade.
These two decisions have made the doubtful England of to-day; and
Macaulay is typical of them; he is the _bourgeois_ in Belgravia. The
alliance is marked by his great speeches for Lord Grey's Reform Bill: it
is marked even more significantly in his speech against the Chartists.
Cobbett was dead.

Macaulay makes the foundation of the Victorian age in all its very
English and unique elements: its praise of Puritan politics and
abandonment of Puritan theology; its belief in a cautious but perpetual
patching up of the Constitution; its admiration for industrial wealth.
But above all he typifies the two things that really make the Victorian
Age itself, the cheapness and narrowness of its conscious formulæ; the
richness and humanity of its unconscious tradition. There were two
Macaulays, a rational Macaulay who was generally wrong, and a romantic
Macaulay who was almost invariably right. All that was small in him
derives from the dull parliamentarism of men like Sir James Mackintosh;
but all that was great in him has much more kinship with the festive

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