G.K. Chesterton.

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antiquarianism of Sir Walter Scott.

As a philosopher he had only two thoughts; and neither of them is true.
The first was that politics, as an experimental science, must go on
improving, along with clocks, pistols or penknives, by the mere
accumulation of experiment and variety. He was, indeed, far too
strong-minded a man to accept the hazy modern notion that the soul in
its highest sense can change: he seems to have held that religion can
never get any better and that poetry rather tends to get worse. But he
did not see the flaw in his political theory; which is that unless the
soul improves with time there is no guarantee that the accumulations of
experience will be adequately used. Figures do not add themselves up;
birds do not label or stuff themselves; comets do not calculate their
own courses; these things are done by the soul of man. And if the soul
of man is subject to other laws, is liable to sin, to sleep, to
anarchism or to suicide, then all sciences including politics may fall
as sterile and lie as fallow as before man's reason was made. Macaulay
seemed sometimes to talk as if clocks produced clocks, or guns had
families of little pistols, or a penknife littered like a pig. The other
view he held was the more or less utilitarian theory of toleration; that
we should get the best butcher whether he was a Baptist or a
Muggletonian, and the best soldier whether he was a Wesleyan or an
Irvingite. The compromise worked well enough in an England Protestant in
bulk; but Macaulay ought to have seen that it has its limitations. A
good butcher might be a Baptist; he is not very likely to be a Buddhist.
A good soldier might be a Wesleyan; he would hardly be a Quaker. For the
rest, Macaulay was concerned to interpret the seventeenth century in
terms of the triumph of the Whigs as champions of public rights; and he
upheld this one-sidedly but not malignantly in a style of rounded and
ringing sentences, which at its best is like steel and at its worst like
tin.

This was the small conscious Macaulay; the great unconscious Macaulay
was very different. His noble enduring quality in our literature is
this: that he truly had an abstract passion for history; a warm, poetic
and sincere enthusiasm for great things as such; an ardour and appetite
for great books, great battles, great cities, great men. He felt and
used names like trumpets. The reader's greatest joy is in the writer's
own joy, when he can let his last phrase fall like a hammer on some
resounding name like Hildebrand or Charlemagne, on the eagles of Rome or
the pillars of Hercules. As with Walter Scott, some of the best things
in his prose and poetry are the surnames that he did not make. And it is
remarkable to notice that this romance of history, so far from making
him more partial or untrustworthy, was the only thing that made him
moderately just. His reason was entirely one-sided and fanatical. It
was his imagination that was well-balanced and broad. He was
monotonously certain that only Whigs were right; but it was necessary
that Tories should at least be great, that his heroes might have foemen
worthy of their steel. If there was one thing in the world he hated it
was a High Church Royalist parson; yet when Jeremy Collier the Jacobite
priest raises a real banner, all Macaulay's blood warms with the mere
prospect of a fight. "It is inspiriting to see how gallantly the
solitary outlaw advances to attack enemies formidable separately, and,
it might have been thought, irresistible when combined; distributes his
swashing blows right and left among Wycherley, Congreve and Vanbrugh,
treads the wretched D'Urfey down in the dirt beneath his feet; and
strikes with all his strength full at the towering crest of Dryden."
That is exactly where Macaulay is great; because he is almost Homeric.
The whole triumph turns upon mere names; but men are commanded by
names. So his poem on the Armada is really a good geography book gone
mad; one sees the map of England come alive and march and mix under the
eye.

The chief tragedy in the trend of later literature may be expressed by
saying that the smaller Macaulay conquered the larger. Later men had
less and less of that hot love of history he had inherited from Scott.
They had more and more of that cold science of self-interests which he
had learnt from Bentham.

The name of this great man, though it belongs to a period before the
Victorian, is, like the name of Cobbett, very important to it. In
substance Macaulay accepted the conclusions of Bentham; though he
offered brilliant objections to all his arguments. In any case the soul
of Bentham (if he had one) went marching on, like John Brown; and in the
central Victorian movement it was certainly he who won. John Stuart Mill
was the final flower of that growth. He was himself fresh and delicate
and pure; but that is the business of a flower. Though he had to preach
a hard rationalism in religion, a hard competition in economics, a hard
egoism in ethics, his own soul had all that silvery sensitiveness that
can be seen in his fine portrait by Watts. He boasted none of that
brutal optimism with which his friends and followers of the Manchester
School expounded their cheery negations. There was about Mill even a
sort of embarrassment; he exhibited all the wheels of his iron universe
rather reluctantly, like a gentleman in trade showing ladies over his
factory. There shone in him a beautiful reverence for women, which is
all the more touching because, in his department, as it were, he could
only offer them so dry a gift as the Victorian Parliamentary Franchise.

Now in trying to describe how the Victorian writers stood to each other,
we must recur to the very real difficulty noted at the beginning: the
difficulty of keeping the moral order parallel with the chronological
order. For the mind moves by instincts, associations, premonitions and
not by fixed dates or completed processes. Action and reaction will
occur simultaneously: or the cause actually be found after the effect.
Errors will be resisted before they have been properly promulgated:
notions will be first defined long after they are dead. It is no good
getting the almanac to look up moonshine; and most literature in this
sense is moonshine. Thus Wordsworth shrank back into Toryism, as it
were, from a Shelleyan extreme of pantheism as yet disembodied. Thus
Newman took down the iron sword of dogma to parry a blow not yet
delivered, that was coming from the club of Darwin. For this reason no
one can understand tradition, or even history, who has not some
tenderness for anachronism.

Now for the great part of the Victorian era the utilitarian tradition
which reached its highest in Mill held the centre of the field; it was
the philosophy in office, so to speak. It sustained its march of
codification and inquiry until it had made possible the great victories
of Darwin and Huxley and Wallace. If we take Macaulay at the beginning
of the epoch and Huxley at the end of it, we shall find that they had
much in common. They were both square-jawed, simple men, greedy of
controversy but scornful of sophistry, dead to mysticism but very much
alive to morality; and they were both very much more under the influence
of their own admirable rhetoric than they knew. Huxley, especially, was
much more a literary than a scientific man. It is amusing to note that
when Huxley was charged with being rhetorical, he expressed his horror
of "plastering the fair face of truth with that pestilent cosmetic,
rhetoric," which is itself about as well-plastered a piece of rhetoric
as Ruskin himself could have managed. The difference that the period had
developed can best be seen if we consider this: that while neither was
of a spiritual sort, Macaulay took it for granted that common sense
required some kind of theology, while Huxley took it for granted that
common sense meant having none. Macaulay, it is said, never talked about
his religion: but Huxley was always talking about the religion he hadn't
got.

But though this simple Victorian rationalism held the centre, and in a
certain sense _was_ the Victorian era, it was assailed on many sides,
and had been assailed even before the beginning of that era. The rest of
the intellectual history of the time is a series of reactions against
it, which come wave after wave. They have succeeded in shaking it, but
not in dislodging it from the modern mind. The first of these was the
Oxford Movement; a bow that broke when it had let loose the flashing
arrow that was Newman. The second reaction was one man; without teachers
or pupils - Dickens. The third reaction was a group that tried to create
a sort of new romantic Protestantism, to pit against both Reason and
Rome - Carlyle, Ruskin, Kingsley, Maurice - perhaps Tennyson. Browning
also was at once romantic and Puritan; but he belonged to no group, and
worked against materialism in a manner entirely his own. Though as a boy
he bought eagerly Shelley's revolutionary poems, he did not think of
becoming a revolutionary poet. He concentrated on the special souls of
men; seeking God in a series of private interviews. Hence Browning,
great as he is, is rather one of the Victorian novelists than wholly of
the Victorian poets. From Ruskin, again, descend those who may be called
the Pre-Raphaelites of prose and poetry.

It is really with this rationalism triumphant, and with the romance of
these various attacks on it, that the study of Victorian literature
begins and proceeds. Bentham was already the prophet of a powerful sect;
Macaulay was already the historian of an historic party, before the true
Victorian epoch began. The middle classes were emerging in a state of
damaged Puritanism. The upper classes were utterly pagan. Their clear
and courageous testimony remains in those immortal words of Lord
Melbourne, who had led the young queen to the throne and long stood
there as her protector. "No one has more respect for the Christian
religion than I have; but really, when it comes to intruding it into
private life - - " What was pure paganism in the politics of Melbourne
became a sort of mystical cynicism in the politics of Disraeli; and is
well mirrored in his novels - for he was a man who felt at home in
mirrors. With every allowance for aliens and eccentrics and all the
accidents that must always eat the edges of any systematic
circumference, it may still be said that the Utilitarians held the fort.

Of the Oxford Movement what remains most strongly in the Victorian Epoch
centres round the challenge of Newman, its one great literary man. But
the movement as a whole had been of great significance in the very
genesis and make up of the society: yet that significance is not quite
easy immediately to define. It was certainly not ├Žsthetic ritualism;
scarcely one of the Oxford High Churchmen was what we should call a
Ritualist. It was certainly not a conscious reaching out towards Rome:
except on a Roman Catholic theory which might explain all our unrests by
that dim desire. It knew little of Europe, it knew nothing of Ireland,
to which any merely Roman Catholic revulsion would obviously have
turned. In the first instance, I think, the more it is studied, the more
it would appear that it was a movement of mere religion as such. It was
not so much a taste for Catholic dogma, but simply a hunger for dogma.
For dogma means the serious satisfaction of the mind. Dogma does not
mean the absence of thought, but the end of thought. It was a revolt
against the Victorian spirit in one particular aspect of it; which may
roughly be called (in a cosy and domestic Victorian metaphor) having
your cake and eating it too. It saw that the solid and serious
Victorians were fundamentally frivolous - because they were
fundamentally inconsistent.

A man making the confession of any creed worth ten minutes' intelligent
talk, is always a man who gains something and gives up something. So
long as he does both he can create: for he is making an outline and a
shape. Mahomet created, when he forbade wine but allowed five wives: he
created a very big thing, which we have still to deal with. The first
French Republic created, when it affirmed property and abolished
peerages; France still stands like a square, four-sided building which
Europe has besieged in vain. The men of the Oxford Movement would have
been horrified at being compared either with Moslems or Jacobins. But
their sub-conscious thirst was for something that Moslems and Jacobins
had and ordinary Anglicans had not: the exalted excitement of
consistency. If you were a Moslem you were not a Bacchanal. If you were
a Republican you were not a peer. And so the Oxford men, even in their
first and dimmest stages, felt that if you were a Churchman you were not
a Dissenter. The Oxford Movement was, out of the very roots of its
being, a rational movement; almost a rationalist movement. In that it
differed sharply from the other reactions that shook the Utilitarian
compromise; the blinding mysticism of Carlyle, the mere manly
emotionalism of Dickens. It was an appeal to reason: reason said that if
a Christian had a feast day he must have a fast day too. Otherwise, all
days ought to be alike; and this was that very Utilitarianism against
which their Oxford Movement was the first and most rational assault.

This idea, even by reason of its reason, narrowed into a sort of sharp
spear, of which the spear blade was Newman. It did forget many of the
other forces that were fighting on its side. But the movement could
boast, first and last, many men who had this eager dogmatic quality:
Keble, who spoilt a poem in order to recognise a doctrine; Faber, who
told the rich, almost with taunts, that God sent the poor as eagles to
strip them; Froude, who with Newman announced his return in the arrogant
motto of Achilles. But the greater part of all this happened before what
is properly our period; and in that period Newman, and perhaps Newman
alone, is the expression and summary of the whole school. It was
certainly in the Victorian Age, and after his passage to Rome, that
Newman claimed his complete right to be in any book on modern English
literature. This is no place for estimating his theology: but one point
about it does clearly emerge. Whatever else is right, the theory that
Newman went over to Rome to find peace and an end of argument, is quite
unquestionably wrong. He had far more quarrels after he had gone over to
Rome. But, though he had far more quarrels, he had far fewer
compromises: and he was of that temper which is tortured more by
compromise than by quarrel. He was a man at once of abnormal energy and
abnormal sensibility: nobody without that combination could have written
the _Apologia_. If he sometimes seemed to skin his enemies alive, it was
because he himself lacked a skin. In this sense his _Apologia_ is a
triumph far beyond the ephemeral charge on which it was founded; in this
sense he does indeed (to use his own expression) vanquish not his
accuser but his judges. Many men would shrink from recording all their
cold fits and hesitations and prolonged inconsistencies: I am sure it
was the breath of life to Newman to confess them, now that he had done
with them for ever. His _Lectures on the Present Position of English
Catholics_, practically preached against a raging mob, rise not only
higher but happier, as his instant unpopularity increases. There is
something grander than humour, there is fun, in the very first lecture
about the British Constitution as explained to a meeting of Russians.
But always his triumphs are the triumphs of a highly sensitive man: a
man must feel insults before he can so insultingly and splendidly
avenge them. He is a naked man, who carries a naked sword. The quality
of his literary style is so successful that it succeeds in escaping
definition. The quality of his logic is that of a long but passionate
patience, which waits until he has fixed all corners of an iron trap.
But the quality of his moral comment on the age remains what I have
said: a protest of the rationality of religion as against the increasing
irrationality of mere Victorian comfort and compromise. So far as the
present purpose is concerned, his protest died with him: he left few
imitators and (it may easily be conceived) no successful imitators. The
suggestion of him lingers on in the exquisite Elizabethan perversity of
Coventry Patmore; and has later flamed out from the shy volcano of
Francis Thompson. Otherwise (as we shall see in the parallel case of
Ruskin's Socialism) he has no followers in his own age: but very many in
ours.

The next group of reactionaries or romantics or whatever we elect to
call them, gathers roughly around one great name. Scotland, from which
had come so many of those harsh economists who made the first Radical
philosophies of the Victorian Age, was destined also to fling forth (I
had almost said to spit forth) their fiercest and most extraordinary
enemy. The two primary things in Thomas Carlyle were his early Scotch
education and his later German culture. The first was in almost all
respects his strength; the latter in some respects his weakness. As an
ordinary lowland peasant, he inherited the really valuable historic
property of the Scots, their independence, their fighting spirit, and
their instinctive philosophic consideration of men merely as men. But he
was not an ordinary peasant. If he had laboured obscurely in his village
till death, he would have been yet locally a marked man; a man with a
wild eye, a man with an air of silent anger; perhaps a man at whom
stones were sometimes thrown. A strain of disease and suffering ran
athwart both his body and his soul. In spite of his praise of silence,
it was only through his gift of utterance that he escaped madness. But
while his fellow-peasants would have seen this in him and perhaps mocked
it, they would also have seen something which they always expect in such
men, and they would have got it: vision, a power in the mind akin to
second sight. Like many ungainly or otherwise unattractive Scotchmen, he
was a seer. By which I do not mean to refer so much to his
transcendental rhapsodies about the World-soul or the Nature-garment or
the Mysteries and Eternities generally, these seem to me to belong more
to his German side and to be less sincere and vital. I mean a real power
of seeing things suddenly, not apparently reached by any process; a
grand power of guessing. He _saw_ the crowd of the new States General,
Danton with his "rude flattened face," Robespierre peering mistily
through his spectacles. He _saw_ the English charge at Dunbar. He
_guessed_ that Mirabeau, however dissipated and diseased, had something
sturdy inside him. He _guessed_ that Lafayette, however brave and
victorious, had nothing inside him. He supported the lawlessness of
Cromwell, because across two centuries he almost physically _felt_ the
feebleness and hopelessness of the moderate Parliamentarians. He said a
word of sympathy for the universally vituperated Jacobins of the
Mountain, because through thick veils of national prejudice and
misrepresentation, he felt the impossibility of the Gironde. He was
wrong in denying to Scott the power of being inside his characters: but
he really had a good deal of that power himself. It was one of his
innumerable and rather provincial crotchets to encourage prose as
against poetry. But, as a matter of fact, he himself was much greater
considered as a kind of poet than considered as anything else; and the
central idea of poetry is the idea of guessing right, like a child.

He first emerged, as it were, as a student and disciple of Goethe. The
connection was not wholly fortunate. With much of what Goethe really
stood for he was not really in sympathy; but in his own obstinate way,
he tried to knock his idol into shape instead of choosing another. He
pushed further and further the extravagances of a vivid but very
unbalanced and barbaric style, in the praise of a poet who really
represented the calmest classicism and the attempt to restore a Hellenic
equilibrium in the mind. It is like watching a shaggy Scandinavian
decorating a Greek statue washed up by chance on his shores. And while
the strength of Goethe was a strength of completion and serenity, which
Carlyle not only never found but never even sought, the weaknesses of
Goethe were of a sort that did not draw the best out of Carlyle. The one
civilised element that the German classicists forgot to put into their
beautiful balance was a sense of humour. And great poet as Goethe was,
there is to the last something faintly fatuous about his half
sceptical, half sentimental self-importance; a Lord Chamberlain of
teacup politics; an earnest and elderly flirt; a German of the Germans.
Now Carlyle had humour; he had it in his very style, but it never got
into his philosophy. His philosophy largely remained a heavy Teutonic
idealism, absurdly unaware of the complexity of things; as when he
perpetually repeated (as with a kind of flat-footed stamping) that
people ought to tell the truth; apparently supposing, to quote
Stevenson's phrase, that telling the truth is as easy as blind hookey.
Yet, though his general honesty is unquestionable, he was by no means
one of those who will give up a fancy under the shock of a fact. If by
sheer genius he frequently guessed right, he was not the kind of man to
admit easily that he had guessed wrong. His version of Cromwell's filthy
cruelties in Ireland, or his impatient slurring over of the most
sinister riddle in the morality of Frederick the Great - these passages
are, one must frankly say, disingenuous. But it is, so to speak, a
generous disingenuousness; the heat and momentum of sincere admirations,
not the shuffling fear and flattery of the constitutional or patriotic
historian. It bears most resemblance to the incurable prejudices of a
woman.

For the rest there hovered behind all this transcendental haze a certain
presence of old northern paganism; he really had some sympathy with the
vast vague gods of that moody but not unmanly Nature-worship which seems
to have filled the darkness of the North before the coming of the Roman
Eagle or the Christian Cross. This he combined, allowing for certain
sceptical omissions, with the grisly Old Testament God he had heard
about in the black Sabbaths of his childhood; and so promulgated
(against both Rationalists and Catholics) a sort of heathen Puritanism:
Protestantism purged of its evidences of Christianity.

His great and real work was the attack on Utilitarianism: which did real
good, though there was much that was muddled and dangerous in the
historical philosophy which he preached as an alternative. It is his
real glory that he was the first to see clearly and say plainly the
great truth of our time; that the wealth of the state is not the
prosperity of the people. Macaulay and the Mills and all the regular run
of the Early Victorians, took it for granted that if Manchester was
getting richer, we had got hold of the key to comfort and progress.
Carlyle pointed out (with stronger sagacity and humour than he showed on
any other question) that it was just as true to say that Manchester was
getting poorer as that it was getting richer: or, in other words, that
Manchester was not getting richer at all, but only some of the less
pleasing people in Manchester. In this matter he is to be noted in
connection with national developments much later; for he thus became the
first prophet of the Socialists. _Sartor Resartus_ is an admirable
fantasia; _The French Revolution_ is, with all its faults, a really
fine piece of history; the lectures on Heroes contain some masterly
sketches of personalities. But I think it is in _Past and Present_, and
the essay on _Chartism_, that Carlyle achieves the work he was chosen by
gods and men to achieve; which possibly might not have been achieved by
a happier or more healthy-minded man. He never rose to more deadly irony
than in such _macabre_ descriptions as that of the poor woman proving
her sisterhood with the rich by giving them all typhoid fever; or that
perfect piece of _badinage_ about "Overproduction of Shirts"; in which
he imagines the aristocrats claiming to be quite clear of this offence.
"Will you bandy accusations, will you accuse _us_ of overproduction? We
take the Heavens and the Earth to witness that we have produced nothing
at all.... He that accuses us of producing, let him show himself. Let
him say what and when." And he never wrote so sternly and justly as when
he compared the "divine sorrow" of Dante with the "undivine sorrow" of
Utilitarianism, which had already come down to talking about the


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Online LibraryG.K. ChestertonThe Victorian Age in Literature → online text (page 2 of 10)