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In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays online

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various types of character are singularly tough, and endure, if not
for ever, for a very long time; yet some types do seem to show signs
of wearing out. The connoisseur, for example, here in England is
hardly what he was. He has specialized, and behind him there is now
the bottomless purse of the multi-millionaire, who buys as he is
bidden, and has no sense of prices. If the multi-millionaire wants a
thing, why should he not have it? The gaping mob, penniless but
appreciative, looks on and cheers his pluck.

Mr. Frederick Locker, about whom I wish to write a few lines, was an
old-world connoisseur, the shy recesses of whose soul Addison might
have penetrated in the page of a _Spectator_ - and a delicate operation
it would have been.

My father-in-law was only once in the witness-box. I had the felicity
to see him there. It was a dispute about the price of a picture, and
in the course of his very short evidence he hazarded the opinion that
the grouping of the figures (they were portraits) was in bad taste.
The Judge, the late Mr. Justice Cave, an excellent lawyer of the old
school, snarled out, 'Do you think you could explain to _me_ what is
taste?' Mr. Locker surveyed the Judge through the eye-glass which
seemed almost part of his being, with a glance modest, deferential,
deprecatory, as if suggesting 'Who am _I_ to explain anything to
_you_?' but at the same time critical, ironical, and humorous. It was
but for one brief moment; the eyeglass dropped, and there came the
mournful answer, as from a man baffled at all points: 'No, my lord; I
should find it impossible!' The Judge grunted a ready, almost a
cheerful, assent.

Properly to describe Mr. Locker, you ought to be able to explain both
to judge and jury what you mean by taste. He sometimes seemed to me to
be _all_ taste. Whatever subject he approached - was it the mystery of
religion, or the moralities of life, a poem or a print, a bit of old
china or a human being - whatever it might be, it was along the avenue
of taste that he gently made his way up to it. His favourite word of
commendation was _pleasing_, and if he ever brought himself to say
(and he was not a man who scattered his judgments, rather was he
extremely reticent of them) of a man, and still more of a woman, that
he or she was _unpleasing_, you almost shuddered at the fierceness of
the condemnation, knowing, as all Locker's intimate friends could not
help doing, what the word meant to him. 'Attractive' was another of
his critical instruments. He meets Lord Palmerston, and does not find
him 'attractive' (_My Confidences_, p. 155).

This is a temperament which when cultivated, as it was in Mr. Locker's
case, by a life-long familiarity with beautiful things in all the arts
and crafts, is apt to make its owner very susceptible to what some
stirring folk may not unjustly consider the trifles of life. Sometimes
Locker might seem to overlook the dominant features, the main object
of the existence, either of a man or of some piece of man's work, in
his sensitively keen perception of the beauty, or the lapse from
beauty, of some trait of character or bit of workmanship. This may
have been so. Mr. Locker was more at home, more entirely his own
delightful self, when he was calling your attention to some humorous
touch in one of Bewick's tail-pieces, or to some plump figure in a
group by his favourite Stothard than when handling a Michael Angelo
drawing or an amazing Blake. Yet, had it been his humour, he could
have played the showman to Michael Angelo and Blake at least as well
as to Bewick, Stothard, or Chodowiecki. But a modesty, marvellously
mingled with irony, was of the very essence of his nature. No man
expatiated less. He never expounded anything in his born days; he very
soon wearied of those he called 'strong' talkers. His critical method
was in a conversational manner to direct your attention to something
in a poem or a picture, to make a brief suggestion or two, perhaps to
apply an epithet, and it was all over, but your eyes were opened.
Rapture he never professed, his tones were never loud enough to
express enthusiasm, but his enjoyment of what he considered good,
wherever he found it - and he was regardless of the set judgments of
the critics - was most intense and intimate. His feeling for anything
he liked was fibrous: he clung to it. For all his rare books and
prints, if he liked a thing he was very tolerant of its _format_. He
would cut a drawing out of a newspaper, frame it, hang it up, and be
just as tender towards it as if it were an impression with the unique
_remarque_.

Mr. Locker had probably inherited his virtuoso's whim from his
ancestors. His great-grandfather was certified by Johnson in his life
of Addison to be a gentleman 'eminent for curiosity and literature,'
and though his grandfather, the Commodore, who lives for ever in our
history as the man who taught Nelson the lesson that saved an
Empire - 'Lay a Frenchman close, and you will beat him' - was no
collector, his father, Edward Hawke Locker, though also a naval man,
was not only the friend of Sir Walter Scott, but a most judicious
buyer of pictures, prints, and old furniture.

Frederick Locker was born in 1821, in Greenwich Hospital, where Edward
Hawke Locker was Civil Commissioner. His mother was the daughter of
one of the greatest book-buyers of his time, a man whose library it
took nine days to disperse - the Rev. Jonathan Boucher, the friend and
opponent of George Washington, an ecclesiastic who might have been
first Bishop of Edinburgh, but who died a better thing, the Vicar of
Epsom.

Frederick Locker grew up among pretty things in the famous hospital.
Water-colours by Lawrence, Prout, Girtin, Turner, Chinnery, Paul
Sandby, Cipriani, and other masters; casts after Canova; mezzotints
after Sir Joshua; Hogarth's famous picture of David Garrick and his
wife, now well hung in Windsor Castle, were about him, and early
attracted his observant eye. Yet the same things were about his elder
brother Arthur, an exceedingly clever fellow, who remained quite
curiously impervious to the impressiveness of pretty things all his
days.

Locker began collecting on his own account after his marriage, in
1850, to a daughter of Lord Byron's enemy, the Lord Elgin, who brought
the marbles from Athens to Bloomsbury. His first object, at least so
he thought, was to make his rooms pretty. From the beginning of his
life as a connoisseur he spared himself no pains, often trudging
miles, when not wanted at the Admiralty Office, in search of his prey.
If any mercantile-minded friend ever inquired what anything had cost,
he would be answered with a rueful smile, 'Much shoe leather.' He
began with old furniture, china, and bric-à-brac, which ere long
somewhat inconveniently filled his small rooms. Prices rose, and means
in those days were as small as the rooms. No more purchases of Louis
Seize and blue majolica and Palissy ware could be made. Drawings by
the old masters and small pictures were the next objects of the chase.
Here again the long purses were soon on his track, and the pursuit had
to be abandoned, but not till many treasures had been garnered. Last
of all he became a book-hunter, beginning with little volumes of
poetry and the drama from 1590 to 1610; and as time went on the
boundaries expanded, but never so as to include black letter.

I dare not say Mr. Locker had all the characteristics of a great
collector, or that he was entirely free from the whimsicalities of the
tribe of connoisseurs, but he was certainly endowed with the chief
qualifications for the pursuit of rarities, and remained clear of the
unpleasant vices that so often mar men's most innocent avocations. Mr.
Locker always knew what he wanted and what he did not want, and never
could be persuaded to take the one for the other; he did not grow
excited in the presence of the quarry; he had patience to wait, and
to go on waiting, and he seldom lacked courage to buy.

He rode his own hobby-horse, never employing experts as buyers. For
quantity he had no stomach. He shrank from numbers. He was not a
Bodleian man; he had not the sinews to grapple with libraries. He was
the connoisseur throughout. Of the huge acquisitiveness of a Heber or
a Huth he had not a trace. He hated a crowd, of whatsoever it was
composed. He was apt to apologize for his possessions, and to
depreciate his tastes. As for boasting of a treasure, he could as
easily have eaten beef at breakfast.

So delicate a spirit, armed as it was for purposes of defence with a
rare gift of irony and a very shrewd insight into the weaknesses and
noisy falsettos of life, was sure to be misunderstood. The dull and
coarse witted found Locker hard to make out. He struck them as
artificial and elaborate, perhaps as frivolous, and yet they felt
uneasy in his company lest there should be a lurking ridicule behind
his quiet, humble demeanour. There was, indeed, always an element of
mockery in Locker's humility.

An exceedingly spiteful account of him, in which it is asserted that
'most of his rarest books are miserable copies' (how book-collectors
can hate one another!), ends with the reluctant admission: 'He was
eminently a gentleman, however, and his manners were even courtly, yet
virile.' Such extorted praise is valuable.

I can see him now before me, with a nicely graduated foot-rule in his
delicate hand, measuring with grave precision the height to a hair of
his copy of _Robinson Crusoe_ (1719), for the purpose of ascertaining
whether it was taller or shorter than one being vaunted for sale in a
bookseller's catalogue just to hand. His face, one of much refinement,
was a study, exhibiting alike a fixed determination to discover the
exact truth about the copy and a humorous realization of the inherent
triviality of the whole business. Locker was a philosopher as well as
a connoisseur.

The Rowfant Library has disappeared. Great possessions are great
cares. 'But ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land-rats,
water-thieves, and land-thieves - I mean pirates; and then there is the
peril of waters, winds and rocks.' To this list the nervous owner of
rare books must add fire, that dread enemy of all the arts. It is
often difficult to provide stabling for dead men's hobby-horses. It
were perhaps absurd in a world like this to grow sentimental over a
parcel of old books. Death, the great unbinder, must always make a
difference.

Mr. Locker's poetry now forms a volume of the _Golden Treasury
Series_. The _London Lyrics_ are what they are. They have been well
praised by good critics, and have themselves been made the subject of
good verse.

'Apollo made one April day
A new thing in the rhyming way;
Its turn was neat, its wit was clear,
It wavered 'twixt a smile and tear.
Then Momus gave a touch satiric,
And it became a _London Lyric_.'
AUSTIN DOBSON.

In another copy of verses Mr. Dobson adds:

'Or where discern a verse so neat,
So well-bred and so witty -
So finished in its least conceit,
So mixed of mirth and pity?'

'Pope taught him rhythm, Prior ease,
Praed buoyancy and banter;
What modern bard would learn from these?
Ah, _tempora mutantur_!'

Nothing can usefully be added to criticism so just, so searching, and
so happily expressed.

Some of the _London Lyrics_ have, I think, achieved what we poor
mortals call immortality - a strange word to apply to the piping of so
slender a reed, to so slight a strain - yet

'In small proportions we just beauties see.'

It is the simplest strain that lodges longest in the heart. Mr.
Locker's strains are never precisely _simple_. The gay enchantment of
the world and the sense of its bitter disappointments murmur through
all of them, and are fatal to their being simple, but the
unpretentiousness of a _London Lyric_ is akin to simplicity.

His relation to his own poetry was somewhat peculiar. A critic in
every fibre, he judged his own verses with a severity he would have
shrunk from applying to those of any other rhyming man. He was deeply
dissatisfied, almost on bad terms, with himself, yet for all that he
was convinced that he had written some very good verses indeed. His
poetry meant a great deal to him, and he stood in need of sympathy and
of allies against his own despondency. He did not get much sympathy,
being a man hard to praise, for unless he agreed with your praise it
gave him more pain than pleasure.

I am not sure that Mr. Dobson agrees with me, but I am very fond of
Locker's paraphrase of one of Clément Marot's _Epigrammes_; and as the
lines are redolent of his delicate connoisseurship, I will quote both
the original (dated 1544) and the paraphrase:

'DU RYS DE MADAME D'ALLEBRET

'Elle a très bien ceste gorge d'albastre,
Ce doulx parler, ce cler tainct, ces beaux yeulx:
Mais en effect, ce petit rys follastre,
C'est à mon gré ce qui lui sied le mieulx;
Elle en pourroit les chemins et les lieux
Où elle passé à plaisir inciter;
Et si ennuy me venoit contrister
Tant que par mort fust ma vie abbatue,
Il me fauldroit pour me resusciter
Que ce rys la duguel elle me tue.'

'How fair those locks which now the light wind stirs!
What eyes she has, and what a perfect arm!
And yet methinks that little laugh of hers -
That little laugh - is still her crowning charm.
Where'er she passes, countryside or town,
The streets make festa and the fields rejoice.
Should sorrow come, as 'twill, to cast me down,
Or Death, as come he must, to hush my voice,
Her laugh would wake me just as now it thrills me -
That little, giddy laugh wherewith she kills me.'

'Tis the very laugh of Millamant in _The Way of the World_! 'I would
rather,' cried Hazlitt, 'have seen Mrs. Abington's Millamant than any
Rosalind that ever appeared on the stage.' Such wishes are idle.
Hazlitt never saw Mrs. Abington's Millamant. I have seen Miss Ethel
Irving's Millamant, _dulce ridentem_, and it was that little giddy
laugh of hers that reminded me of Marot's Epigram and of Frederick
Locker's paraphrase. So do womanly charms endure from generation to
generation, and it is one of the duties of poets to record them.

In 1867 Mr. Locker published his _Lyra Elegantiarun. A Collection of
Some of the Best Specimens of Vers de Société and Vers d'Occasion in
the English Languages by Deceased Authors_. In his preface Locker gave
what may now be fairly called the 'classical' definition of the verses
he was collecting. '_Vers de société_ and _vers d'occasion_ should'
(so he wrote) 'be short, elegant, refined and fanciful, not seldom
distinguished by heightened sentiment, and often playful. The tone
should not be pitched high; it should be idiomatic and rather in the
conversational key; the rhythm should be crisp and sparkling, and the
rhyme frequent and never forced, while the entire poem should be
marked by tasteful moderation, high finish and completeness; for
however trivial the subject-matter may be - indeed, rather in
proportion to its triviality, subordination to the rules of
composition and perfection of execution should be strictly enforced.
The definition may be further illustrated by a few examples of pieces,
which, from the absence of some of the foregoing qualities, or from
the excess of others, cannot be properly regarded as _vers de
société_, though they may bear a certain generic resemblance to that
species of poetry. The ballad of "John Gilpin," for example, is too
broadly and simply ludicrous; Swift's "Lines on the Death of
Marlborough," and Byron's "Windsor Poetics," are too savage and
truculent; Cowper's "My Mary" is far too pathetic; Herrick's lyrics to
"Blossoms" and "Daffodils" are too elevated; "Sally in our Alley" is
too homely and too entirely simple and natural; while the "Rape of the
Lock," which would otherwise be one of the finest specimens of _vers
de société_ in any language, must be excluded on account of its
length, which renders it much too important.'

I have made this long quotation because it is an excellent example of
Mr. Locker's way of talking about poets and poetry, and of his
intimate, searching, and unaffected criticism.

_Lyra Elegantiarum_ is a real, not a bookseller's collection. Mr.
Locker was a great student of verse. There was hardly a stanza of any
English poet, unless it was Spenser, for whom he had no great
affection, which he had not pondered over and clearly considered as
does a lawyer his cases. He delighted in a complete success, and
grieved over any lapse from the fold of metrical virtue, over any
ill-sounding rhyme or unhappy expression. The circulation of _Lyra
Elegantiarum_ was somewhat interfered with by a 'copyright' question.
Mr. Locker had a great admiration for Landor's short poems, and
included no less than forty-one of them, which he chose with the
utmost care. Publishers are slow to perceive that the best chance of
getting rid of their poetical wares (and Landor was not popular) is to
have attention called to the artificer who produced them. The
Landorian publisher objected, and the _Lyra_ had to be 'suppressed' - a
fine word full of hidden meanings. The second-hand booksellers, a wily
race, were quick to perceive the significance of this, and have for
more than thirty years obtained inflated prices for their early
copies, being able to vend them as possessing the _Suppressed Verses_.
There is a great deal of Locker in this collection. To turn its pages
is to renew intercourse with its editor.

In 1879 another little volume instinct with his personality came into
existence and made friends for itself. He called it _Patchwork_, and
to have given it any other name would have severely taxed his
inventiveness. It is a collection of stories, of _ana_, of quotations
in verse and prose, of original matter, of character-sketches, of
small adventures, of table-talk, and of other things besides, if other
things, indeed, there be. If you know _Patchwork_ by heart you are
well equipped. It is intensely original throughout, and never more
original than when its matter is borrowed. Readers of _Patchwork_ had
heard of Mr. Creevey long before Sir Herbert Maxwell once again let
that politician loose upon an unlettered society.

The book had no great sale, but copies evidently fell into the hands
of the more judicious of the pressmen, who kept it by their sides, and
every now and again

'Waled a portion with judicious care'

for quotation in their columns. The _Patchwork_ stories thus got into
circulation one by one. Kind friends of Mr. Locker's, who had been
told, or had discovered for themselves, that he was somewhat of a wag,
would frequently regale him with bits of his own _Patchwork_,
introducing them to his notice as something they had just heard, which
they thought he would like - murdering his own stories to give him
pleasure. His countenance on such occasions was a _rendezvous_ of
contending emotions, a battlefield of rival forces. Politeness ever
prevailed, but it took all his irony and sad philosophy to hide his
pain. _Patchwork_ is such a good collection of the kind of story he
liked best that it was really difficult to avoid telling him a story
that was _not_ in it. I made the blunder once myself with a Voltairean
anecdote. Here it is as told in _Patchwork_: 'Voltaire was one day
listening to a dramatic author reading his comedy, and who said, "Ici
le chevalier rit!" He exclaimed: "Le chevalier est _bien_ heureux!"' I
hope I told it fairly well. He smiled sadly, and said nothing, not
even _Et tu, Brute_!

In 1886 Mr. Locker printed for presentation a catalogue of his printed
books, manuscripts, autograph letters, drawings, and pictures. Nothing
of his own figures in this catalogue, and yet in a very real sense the
whole is his. Most of the books are dispersed, but the catalogue
remains, not merely as a record of rareties and bibliographical
details dear to the collector's heart, but as a token of taste. Just
as there is, so Wordsworth reminds us, 'a spirit in the woods,' so is
there still, brooding over and haunting the pages of the 'Rowfant
Catalogue,' the spirit of true connoisseurship. In the slender lists
of Locker's 'Works' this book must always have a place.

Frederick Locker died at Rowfant on May 30, 1895, leaving behind him,
carefully prepared for the press, a volume he had christened _My
Confidences: An Autographical Sketch addressed to My Descendants_.

In due course the book appeared, and was misunderstood at first by
many. It cut a strange, outlandish figure among the crowd of casual
reminiscences it externally resembled. Glancing over the pages of _My
Confidences_, the careless library subscriber encountered the usual
number of names of well-known personages, whose appearance is supposed
by publishers to add sufficient zest to reminiscences to secure
for them a sale large enough, at any rate, to recoup the cost of
publication. Yet, despite these names, Mr. Locker's book is completely
unlike the modern memoir. Beneath a carefully-constructed, and
perhaps slightly artificially maintained, frivolity of tone, the book
is written in deadly earnest. Not for nothing did its author choose as
one of the mottoes for its title-page, 'Ce ne sont mes gestes que
j'écrie; c'est moy.' It may be said of this book, as of Senancour's
_Oberman_:

'A fever in these pages burns;
Beneath the calm they feign,
A wounded human spirit turns
Here on its bed of pain.'

The still small voice of its author whispers through _My Confidences_.
Like Montaigne's _Essays_, the book is one of entire good faith, and
strangely uncovers a personality.

As a tiny child Locker was thought by his parents to be very like Sir
Joshua Reynolds' picture of Puck, an engraving of which was in the
home at Greenwich Hospital, and certainly Locker carried to his
grave more than a suspicion of what is called Puckishness. In _My
Confidences_ there are traces of this quality.

Clearly enough the author of _London Lyrics_, the editor of _Lyra
Elegantiarum_, of _Patchwork_, and the whimsical but sincere compiler
of _My Confidences_ was more than a mere connoisseur, however much
connoisseurship entered into a character in which taste played so
dominant a part.

Stronger even than taste was his almost laborious love of kindness.
He really took too much pains about it, exposing himself to rebuffs
and misunderstandings; but he was not without his rewards. All
down-hearted folk, sorrowful, disappointed people, the unlucky, the
ill-considered, the _mésestimés_ - those who found themselves condemned
to discharge uncongenial duties in unsympathetic society, turned
instinctively to Mr. Locker for a consolation, so softly administered
that it was hard to say it was intended. He had friends everywhere, in
all ranks of life, who found in him an infinity of solace, and for his
friends there was nothing he would not do. It seemed as if he could
not spare himself. I remember his calling at my chambers one hot day
in July, when he happened to have with him some presents he was in
course of delivering. Among them I noticed a bust of Voltaire and an
unusually lively tortoise, generally half-way out of a paper bag.
Wherever he went he found occasion for kindness, and his whimsical
adventures would fill a volume. I sometimes thought it would really be
worth while to leave off the struggle for existence, and gently to
subside into one of Lord Rowton's homes in order to have the pleasure
of receiving in my new quarters a first visit from Mr. Locker. How
pleasantly would he have mounted the stair, laden with who knows what
small gifts? - a box of mignonette for the window-sill, an old book or
two, as likely as not a live kitten, for indeed there was never an end
to the variety or ingenuity of his offerings! How felicitous would
have been his greeting! How cordial his compliments! How abiding the
sense of his unpatronizing friendliness! But it was not to be. One can
seldom choose one's pleasures.

In his _Patchwork_ Mr. Locker quotes Gibbon's encomium on Charles
James Fox. Anyone less like Fox than Frederick Locker it might be hard
to discover, but fine qualities are alike wherever they are found
lodged; and if Fox was as much entitled as Locker to the full benefit


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Online LibraryAugustine BirrellIn the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays → online text (page 11 of 14)