Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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that day on a theme which might fairly be described as Tolerance.
(I suppose I may put them down for thirty copies of my next

' The very day after I came home, oddly enough, I received
a sweet letter from your dear Arthur, dated from the Northern
Circuit, telling me the date of the wedding, and most kindly
reiterating the young folk's wish that I should be present, and
I quite hope to manage it.

* We are having a quite lovely Bank Holiday, but I wish I was
on "Hampstead's breezy Heath" with the artist of my choice.
By the way, at Dr. Fox's last evening, I read in the Magazine of
Art for April, or thereabouts, a sympathetic article on you with
illustrations from P. T. You doubtless have seen it.

' My friend Ward, of Owens College, writes me that he has been
much amused with Charles Keetie's Life. I think I must buy it,
in memory of the dear old Quixote.

' Write again (Type-writer will do). Why does not May take
up that " admii-able substitute for" the piano, and then (with a
little practice) she might set down your most inspired utterances
even as they flow in lava-like torrents from etc., etc.

' "So careful of the Type ! — Oli yes." — Tennyson.
' Your love-sick Canon.

'. . . Scene at dinner at Country Inn — favourite haunt of
amateur artists. (Technicalities overheard in a lull of general
conversation) : —

' " Do you wash ?
No, I soratch." '


' Dyrham Lodge,
' Clifton Park, Bristol, Sept. 7th, 1892.

' Dear and distinguished Artist ! — How glad was I to see your
writing, and dating from that place ui places — Whitby. Would


that it were possible to join you there — but I am " tethered "
here, like the " poor little ass, of an oppressed race," and may
not break away from my allotted three acres (and no cow) until
the 30th — the day you return. After that, even, my move-
ments are uncertain, for I must be here for our quarterly Chapter
meeting on October 4th and 5th.

'I am grieved about Gerald's new Firm. . . . But don't let
him go on the stage — even if he were born to be a second
" Albert Chevalier." It is an atmosphere of " Four 'alf " in which
I feel he would not be happy. No ! it is a delightful amtisemeytt —
but a horrid trade !

* I am rejoiced to hear good news of the dear young couple.

The other day I was with my old friend A , and there I met

an old friend, a Miss D (lately married to an old chap —

"^en secondes noces "), and found it was her old rooms in Craven
(Hill.'* Gardens.''), which I remember well, that Arthur and
Sylvia have taken. Surely, this is a small world !

'Punch has been very good of late. Your drawing of the
young doctor and his wife to-day is quite charming. Furniss's
idea of the " New Cabinet," a few weeks ago^ masterly. This
evening I have asked a country clergyman near here and his
daughter to come over and dine, and go to Hengler's Circus, where
real Lions — three in hand — are driven harnessed round the arena.
If this is not an intellectual treat, I have yet to learn what is !

' I have been expecting my dear friend Ward, of Owens College,
to visit his aunt (also his mother-in-law) here this week, but he
has again been laid up with gout — his old enemy.

' Write again soon — and on a particularly wet day, ask May and
Gerald to add Postscripts. — Your ever devoted,

'Alfred Ainoer.

'Best love and regards to the many-talented, many-charmed

To Miss Sturge on the Death of her Sister.

' The Glade,
' Branch Hill, Hampstead, 1892.

' Dear Miss Sturge, ... It is indeed a strange and startling
reminder of the mysteries of God's government and discipline
that we cannot fathom — that we can only bow the head and

'You and yours will find your best comfort, I know, in


remembering how that life was spent : in ministry to the poor
and to all who needed guidance and comfort ; and such are
surely blest — in their lives, and in what follows this life.

' . . . I should very much like to have the little sketch of your
sister of which you speak. It is good always to know the " hidden
life " of the reticent ones of the world, and to be assured that all
real strength comes from the same One Source, after all. . . .
No ! thank God, death does not take away : —

' " Thou takest not away, O Death !
Thou strikest — absence perisheth.

Indifference is no more ;
The future brightens on our sight ;
For on the past hath fallen a light
That tempts us to adore."


' The departed are very near to us still when we share their
best aims and endeavours and sympathies ; there is no surer bond
than this — for we are then fellow-labourers with them and with

Alfred Ain(;kk ai- jhk a(;ic ok fifty.

From a fhoti>£>aph hy Messrs. lilliott &• Fry.




' " On their own merits modest men are dumb "" (G. Colman).
But I had very good audiences and they did not throw the
chairs at me,' so Ainger wrote on the programme that he sent
to a friend, of one of his lectures — the ' Three Stages of Shake-
speare's Art' — given at the Royal Institution. The public
need not be modest for him, and the words inscribed in his
honour on the memorial window in Bristol Cathedral by no
means overstate the truth. ' As Lecturer on great writers, he
had few equals,' they run, ' face, voice, gesture and subtle
humour each contributing to the charm of his interpretations.'

Between 1880 and 1892, Ainger lectured continually at Hamp-
stead, at Streatham, at Edinburgh, at Glasgow, at Bristol, at
Manchester, at Sheffield, at Newnham. It was in 1889 that he
was first asked to do so at the Royal Institution. ' I have
got the Blue Ribbon of literature,' he jubilantly told an
acquaintance, and it was there that some of his best dis-
courses were given. All who heard him came away with the
picture of his spirit-like figure as he stood leaning up against
the desk, now half-lost behind it, now dominating it with a
dignity all his own, as if he had just come from the land of
literature — ' the land of poetry ... in reality no man's land '
— and were only there to represent it. They will recall the
mobile face, the expressive hand, the swift and sudden gleam
of satire, like the straight shooting of an arrow, the change
again to tranquillity — all that he said enhanced by the read-
ings that he gave from poet and prose-writer, which made his
lectures so unique.

Sometimes he would stan.! as he spoke.

' None of us/ writes one of his Bristol audience, ' who had the
pi'ivilege of being present on these occasions will ever foi-get him



as he . . . sat, sometimes easily in his chair, and " led our minds
the roundabout." Nor shall we forget how in the intervals he
used to prowl about the recessed platform, as one has seen happy
restless creatures pace up and down a den, sublimely unconscious
of the sightseers below. . . . He kept his audience in a dehght-
ful state of uncertainty as to what he was going to say next.
It was obvious to all from the first moment, when he looked
round the crowded room, that he was going to enjoy himself; and
the audience instinctively knew, when they saw his humour, that
he would not enjoy himself alone. Sometimes to those who
could not help watching the hands of the inexorable clock, the
last part of the lecture was almost spoiled by the overwhelming
feeling that the delight must so soon come to an end. The hours
were so short when this magician of the wonderful voice held us
in a thrall.' ^

Many of his lectures were published in his lifetime as
articles. Of the twelve essays that he contributed to Mac-
millari's Magazine, many had first been heard in public, though
their form was of necessity elaborated before they went to
press. The Letteis of Charles Lamb, The Teaching of English
Literature, Poetae Mediocres, Nether Stowey, instances in
point, possess a crispness and a literary finish not to be
expected from the lectures which his own hand did not pre-
pare for print. The first paper. Books and their Uses, signed
' Doubleday ^ (for Doubled A), M^as written when he was but
twenty-two ; the remaining eleven appeared between 1871 and
1896, when his contributions closed with an article upon his
old friend, Alexander Macmillan, who died in that same year.
They range over various ground : some are portraits of in-
dividuals, like those on Sir George Rose, or on Charles Mathews,
the actor ; in others he handles the drama, as in the one upon
The New Hamlet, or his sketch of Charles Dickens's
theatricals; but the greater number concern authors and
literature — they are, as it were, pleasant strolls along its
grass-paths, too definite to be called rambles, yet with nothing
of the constitutional about them. And of these, the best
are those that circle round Lamb and the Lake School of
Poets. Lamb's Letters, Nether Stowey, Cole)'idge\s Ode to
1 Canon Ainger: a Short Study , by George Hare Leonard.


Wordsworth^ which, as Canon Beeching says, throws new
light upon the character of Coleridge — these are among the
best things that came from his pen, whether for charm or
insight, or for that icind of candid precision which always dis-
tinguished his judgments. And to these may be added How I
traced Charles Lamb in Hertfordshire, given rather later and not
published till after his death, in the Cornhill MagazinCy^ ' a
narrative of adventure at Widford,' with ' more of the true
Elia flavour about it than about many essays written more
consciously upon that inimitable model.'

The lectures delivered at the Royal Institution were not
prepared by him for publication. He delivered them from
time to time, from 1889 onwards; two Friday evening dis-
courses, ' True and False Humour in Literature,'- and
' Euphuism Past and Present,'^ having been given before
1892, besides a course of three on the 'Three Stages of
Shakespeare's Art.'^

'The two chief objects of teaching English literature at
all are to teach us to enjoy the great writers, not to know
who their maiden-aunts were . . . and to know good litera-
ture from bad when we come upon it in our own time.' These
words, which occur in a letter already given, express Ainger's
attitude towards books. Though he was as little impersonal in
literature as in life, personalities were never first with him, and,
unlike the lecturer of the modern school, he seldom dealt in
biographical detail. His lectures and his essays — for to speak
of him as lecturer and writer is all one — will stand not so much
as contributions to knowledge, but as a record of his likes
and dislikes, of his outlook upon men and books. Perhaps his
most complete confession of faith as a critic is contained in a
lecture which he gave on the Teaching of English Literature,^
so complete that, to get his whole view, we cannot do better
than quote a few pages from it, as they stand.

^ May 1904. 3 April jth, 1889.

2 April 24th, 1 89 1. * February 1890.

^ Given at University College, Bristol, and published in Macmillan' s
Magazine, December 1889. Like the above-mentioned lectures, it is now
included in the volume of Lectures and Essays, edited by the Rev. Canon
Beeching, 1905.


' Would it be a worthless result of two or three years' study of
the great realities, of which these are the counterfeits, to be able
to detect the base coin, and at once nail it to the counter ? I am
well aware that fine taste is a very rare faculty indeed. " Taste,"
that admirable ci'itic, the late Edward FitzGerald, used to say, " is
the feminine of genius " ; and, like its male companion, it must
always be the heritage of the few. But there are degrees of it,
and it may be developed by training, and though the best teach-
ing in the world will fail to give some young persons a relish for
Milton or Spenser, the average of failures need not be greater
than in other and older-established subjects of instruction. . . .
" Then after all," it may be retorted on me, " criticism does con-
sist in picking holes and finding faults ; and the result of all you
have said, if accomplished, will be to limit our sources of innocent
enjoyment, and to make us fastidious and one-sided." Nothing
can be further from the truth. We may truly say of criticism,
as was said of religion in Dr. Watts' hymn, that " It never was
designed to make our pleasures less.' It is true that it purifies
and elevates them, but it does not diminish them in the process ;
it incalculably widens them. It cuts off from our serious atten-
tion a vast amount of inferior writing ; it teaches us to know the
echo from the voice, the pale imitation from the real thing ; but
while it takes away with one hand it gives with the other,
and gives far more than it takes away. Criticism is meant to
make us fastidious — fastidious, that is, as to the quality of any
particular kind of literature ; but at the same time, if it is worth
anything, it extends indefinitely the width of our sympathies and
likings. It tells us not to admire unreal things and feeble imita-
tions ; but it also tells us how many things there are of first-rate
excellence to which our eyes have been hitherto sealed. It tells us
that though Shelley may be a greater poet than Longfellow, yet
that an original Longfellow is worth any number of imitation Shel-
leys. It tells us that to affect to see no excellence in one kind of
literature, because we see a great deal (or think we do) in some
other more exalted kind ; to wonder what on earth people ever
admired in Pope because we see a great deal to admire in Tenny-
son ; that this is a sign, not at all of the " higher criticism," but
of a very low and poor criticism indeed ; and any education in taste
that has ended in diminishing the number of remarkable writers
that we can derive pleasure from, is shown thereby to have been
no true education, and to have missed its mark. . . . But there
is a right and a wrong even in matters of taste, and while our


own taste is in the process of formings it is of first-rate importance
that we should be instructed upon authority " what we are to
admire " ; that we should at least learn to suspend our dislikes and
our px-ejudices till we are in some measure entitled to have them.
There are certain writers in our literature who have come to be
called classics. What is a classic ? A classic is, I suppose^ a writer
who has attained by the continuous verdict of successive genera-
tions of readers and critics, a certain rank which individual opinion
is of no avail to disturb. Individual opinion no doubt very often
does resent, openly or silently, the rank thus awarded to a writer.
One of John Leech's youngsters, you may remember, confided to
another youngster (his friend) that he considered even Shakespeare
a much over-rated man. And if such a stretch of independent judg-
ment as this may be rare, there are certainly many other authors,
of the rank called classical, whose claims to such recognition our
young men and women frankly question. Now I conceive that
it is one of the best services the lecturer on English literature
can render, to point out that in this, as in some other matters, the
verdict of continuous generations is more likely to be right than
that of the young man or woman, however brimming over with the
higher culture. ... A series of generations is wiser than any
single generation. Of course no teacher of literature can make his
students ultimately like any particular author. You can take a
horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. You may
lead your pupils to the refreshing streams of Wordsworth, and
they may sip, and turn away. You may lead them to Crabbe,
"Nature's sternest painter," and they may refuse even to moisten
their lips. But the teacher may at least give his students a fair
chance and opportunity to learn what it is in these Avriters that has
made men admire and love them ; he may warn them that any
writer of individuality has a claim upon some patience, and some
modesty, in those who approach him as reader and critic ; that he
cannot be judged, or understood, or loved, in an hour, or a day.
The teacher may do good service by pointing out that if some of
the noblest and profoundest thinkers of this century have con-
fessed that they owe more wisdom and happiness to the poetiy of
Wordsworth than they can ever acknowledge, a young critic should
never think that the last word on the subject is spoken when he
has quoted the opening lines of the amusing parody in the
" Rejected Addresses". . . .

* It is another of the privileges of a teacher of literature to
make sure that his pupils take hold of every author bi/ the right


end — that they do not begin with his inferior writings (for every
author has best and worst), or with what is longest and apt to
tire the young patience. But in any case — an author must be
read. And as, while we lecture upon an author, we cannot ensure
that he shall be read, I have often felt that to read a considerable
portion of an author with a class — allowing his power or his pathos
or his charm to grow and win upon us as we went along — is really
almost the only certain way of ensuring that the writer shall ever
produce the good we seek from him. I know the difficulties in
the way : want of time, the chief. And then it looks so easy and
so indolent ! " Why should I send my daughter to a class to read
a book ? " asks the aggrieved parent. " She can do that at home.
Why should I pay that professor to do what cannot cost him any
trouble or preparation — any one can listen to a pupil reading a
book ! " Alas ! Alas ! how little people know ! And what is the
consequence ? That, to repeat an illustration I used at the outset
of my lecture, many a young student can write out a " Life of Sir
John Suckling with Dates," which is not literature ; and never
come to the point of gaining pleasure from those two or thx'ee
charming lyrics which he has left us, and of perceiving that the
" Ballad of a Wedding," or the song, " Why so pale and wan, fond
Lover ? " are for real gaiety, humour, and vitality, worth nine-
tenths of the machine-made rondeaux and triolets which make up
the rers de societe of to-day. And to understand this, is to have
got so far towards understanding what literature is, and why certain
writings have become classical and certain others have not. And,
' to repeat yet once more what I said at the beginning, the love of
j the text may then awaken an interest in the notes. But that
/process is not capable of being reversed. What is Sir John
Suckling to me otherwise ?

' If he be not fair to me —
What care I how fair he be }

'. . . I have no intention of advocating the study of English
literature as an amusement. I have tried this evening to show
two things : (1) that happiness, or joy, as an end to be sought, is a
wholly different— even a wholly opposite— thing to amusement ;
and (2) that the deep and profitable acquaintance with any great
author can only result from a joint application of brain and heart
that can never be easy, or consist with the mere instinct of killing
time. It is not, let me say once more, by reading light literature
the Solomon Grundys among books that are born on a Monday


and die before their little week is out — that we learn to know
good literature from bad.'

' / am xvell aware that taste is a very rare faculty indeed^' the
words at the outset of this passage, sound the note of his
personality. It was this ' very rare faculty,' rather than
originality, which gave him a first place among men of letters,
and through which he conveyed his literary message to his
public. For he had one chief means at his disposal by which
he carried out his precept — one distinguishing feature of his
lectures which must be dwelt on before we enter more into
their nature. This was his reading. Somebody once said of
him that he quoted where others discussed, substituting apt
interpretation for lengthy analysis. And it was true. His
reading did not only reveal fresh truth by its beauty — the
slightest inflection in his voice was often a moral epigram, a
delicate application of some line he was reading to his audience.
When he gave Chaucer's picture of the prosperous church-
going ladies, quarrelling for precedence over pews, he appeared
to evoke in their absurdity many petty human bickerings ; and
when he impersonated Edgar in King Lear, it seemed as if he
were glorifying the whole of human loyalty. In the reading
of Lear, perhaps of all other plays, his interpretative gifts were
best summed up. To hear him in the storm scene was to feel
the full impressiveness of poetic imagination. His Fool was
Shakespeare's own Fool — the subtlest compound of shrewd
insight and innocence, pathos and frolic, servility and
impertinence, waywardness and dignity ; now a prince, then a
child, and now a will-o'-the-wisp. And the realisation of the
other characters was on the same level. Lear's sorrow and
dignity were part of the tumult of the universe, and when
* Poor Tom' was 'a'cold,' a shiver ran through Ainger's frail
form, the tempest burst suddenly upon us on the heath, and
we were set face to face with the elements and with elemental
human passions.

There were, perhaps, few places which heard as much Shake-
speare from him as did Hamp^tead. His lectures there on the
great plays, to which his many pupils owed so much enlighten-
ment, often consisted for the most part of reading interspersed


with comments. These comments were but fragments ; they
are only preserved in the stray note-books of those who heard
them. Yet such as they are, they give some rough impression
of his thought ; and it seems worth while to subjoin them
here — a natural sequel, however inadequate, to any memories
of his reading.

* All true humour is based on breadth of observation ; this is
Irue humour because true life.'

' Shakespeare cared for man more than for incident, and revealed
all the varied, unvarying qualities of humanity ... In Shake-
speare the plot arises from the characters and could not arise
without them. . . . No matter how repellent his plots, without
intending it, and even without being conscious of it, Shakespeare
seems to sweeten them and bring us more into love with human

* Literature demanded a perfectly sane genius . . . and Shake-
speare's genius was founded on moral sanity and moral SAveetness.
. . . Even his first attempt showed no sign of imitation ; and his
was " the power of going on and still to be." The stream, though
it flows through well-ordered banks, yet as it flows, it brims. . . .
His was the prodigality of quality rather than quantity. In his
eai'lier work the food is sometimes too rich, and we cannot see
the wood for the trees. . . . His finest mastery is the mastery
over himself. As the incidents arise, his language calms into
simplicity and strength. He shows us suffering and all the glory
of charity which springs up like flowers about its feet.'

' We know Pope and Swift by their writings. Every novelist,
too, now and then relapses on himself, but it is not so with the
dramatist. . . .

' It has been thought that Jacques represents Shakespeare at a
time when moral sentiment had become dimmer through contact
with the world. I read a different moral and think that it was a
healthy mood in which Shakespeare wrote the part. Jacques is
not Shakespeare ; and when in the play his melancholy is laughed
at, Shakespeare is condemning cynicism, not allowing it. The
little touch of conscience made Jacques sweet. . . .

' It is Shakespeare, not Pistol, who laughs at the fashions of the


day. And we, who have watched Shakespeare laugh at them,
know him the better for it. . . .'

'If Love's Labour's Lost shows an excess of words, Coriolanns
shows an excess of thought — depth of thought also. Its very
obscurity comes from a plethora of thought.'

'The Winter's Tale stands by the side of the Tempest in sweet-
ness and in greatness. There may be, and is, a difference in
power when we compare it with the earlier plays, but most
assuredly there is no falling off. . . . The tone is autumnal, real
to feel if difficult to define. . . . The Winter's Tale and the
Tempest rank as comedies, but they are so solemn that it seems
profane not to rank them apart. In them we find still another
" soul of goodness in things evil " — still distilled, but sweeter

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 17 of 32)