Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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' I am very glad I stopped when I did. I heard a voice behind
me saying, " You have written enough, stop there." Yours very

'J. Henry Shorthouse.'

' Lansdowne,
' Edgbaston, April 27, 1884.

' My dear Mr. Ainger, — ... I return the " interpretation "
with many thanks. I am very pleased with the idea of false and
true art; this will be helpful. The whole paper is very like one
which dear Mrs. Russell Gurney sent us as soon as the tale
appeared. I would copy it, but it is so like the one you have
that it is hardly worth while. She says, " once I thought the
whole was a scene in ManSoul, as Bunyan would call it, that Mark
was the conscience or divinely-born spirit — the Prince the
reasoning faculty — the Princess the earthborn Psyche allied to
the outward, while the Signorina was the art-winged one, the
counterpart of dear, subtle, humorous old Arlecchino. The
ethereal clown, questioning with Mark concerning art-life " so
wondrously," was he the human, sensuous perception .'' But no ;
the simple dignity and unity of the poem seems to fritter on
{sic) such attempt to label.". . . .

' I am, Yours, etc., etc.,

'J. Henry Shorthouse.'


' October 1884.

' Dear Mr. Shorthouse, — I want to tell you with as little
delay as possible, with what delight and gratitude I have read
the second part oi Little Mark : you had prepared me, in a measure,
for the line you were going to take, but I had little notion of
the power and pathos that was in store for us. As you know, I
have been for years trying to enforce kindred truths from the
pulpit, and I can only wish that we could always be seconded
so nobly and effectually by so-called " secular " writers and
teachers. Oh, how my heart went with you when you denounced
the foolish and pernicious practice of distinguishing between
things " secular " and things " sacred " !

* What struck me as much as anything was the use made of the
Signorina's devotion to the old Maestro, as shewing how art might
minister to devotion and self-sacrifice, and so become indeed a
hand-maid to religion. Was this use of the situation at all con-
templated in the ,/irst part of the story — or was it a brilliant
after-thought .'' I will not write more now, for (please God) we
shall meet early in November and shall have much pleasant talk.
I am coming to the end of my vacation, and am here staying
a few days with a very dear and valued clergyman friend,
Mr. Bather. With kindest remembrances to Mrs. Shorthouse,
yours always, Alfred Ainger.'

' When I came to the end of your story, my first thought was,
" what a fine drama it would make." But I soon withdrew the
remark — for that would be to make righteousness end only in art.
Far better that we should read and ponder and grow by the
process nearer to " the children — and the Christ." '

' Lansdowne,
' Edgbaston, October 2, 1884.

'Dear Mr. Ainger, — V^ery many thanks for your most kind
letter. We are delighted that you think the second Part successful.
It was somewhat of a risk, but I am quite satisfied with the course
I took. I never could have written the second part but for the
conversations and suggestions which resulted from the first ; and
the fact that a story has grown gradually in the author's mind is,
I think, of immense advantage every way.

' I think when the two parts are published together the tale
will be seen to develop itself naturally. I hope you will allow me
to send you one of the first copies.


' We need not say how much we are looking forward to your

visit. . . . Yours very sincerely,

' J. Henry Shorthouse.

' PS. — The action and re-action of feeling on musical tone has
long been a subject of interest to me. I am certain that some
time a G7-eai Musical Tale will be written by some one and will be
a revelation to all of us.'

It is strange that throughout these letters Ainger seems to
believe that he is in perfect agreement with Sliorthouse.
Both are, in truth, making for the same goal — the spiritual-
ising of life ; but they reach it, as it were, by inverted methods,
for Shorthouse wants to turn religion into an art, while Ainger
desires to turn all art into religion. Sliorthouse was a mystic
and a Platonist ; Ainger was a sober English Protestant. Yet
their minds suited well in intercourse — they liked to discuss
the same themes ; and their converse, whether held in London
or at Edgbaston, where Ainger paid more than one visit, left
stimulating; memories behind it.


ainger's humour

To Ainger"'s strong moral sense, his humour acted as a counter-
poise. Or, rather, we should say that the one was part of the
other. It is dangerous to generalise, yet it might almost be
laid down that true humour, unlike wit, belongs to character —
that it is a moral quality — or, at least, if it is to endure, that
it must contain the moral element.

Alfred Ainger's humour was of the school of Charles Dickens
— broad, warm, high-spirited. He himself has acknowledged
his master and given us his own definitions both of wit and
humour :

* Not, perhaps, till the next great master of humour shall have
arisen, and in his turn fixed the humorous form for the generation
or two that succeed him, will Dickens's countrymen be able to
form a proximate idea of the rank he is finally to take in the roll
of English Authors.

•. . . Wit, according to the definition commonly accepted, lies
in the discovery of relations between words or ideas before unsus-
pected or unimagined ; its pleasure lies in surprises . . . but the
genius of at least one eminent contemporary of Dickens shows
how any definition of the kind is subject to continuous modifica-
tion. Thomas Hood was a great wit — in his own line without a
rival — but his best wit merges into humour, transfused by his
great gift of human kindness. Thackeray was feeling his way to
a truer account of the matter when he said, " Shall we not call
humour the union of love and wit.-"' In this combination of a
swift and vivid intellectual apprehension, with the controlling
sense of a human relationship with all the diverse creations of his
fancy, consists the power of Charles Dickens. And in this regard,
as a humorist, he takes higher rank than Thackeray. The latter
does not stand on the same level as his characters; he looks
down on them kindly, no doubt, and pityingly, but still from a
higher elevation. The allegory which he suggested in the preface



to Vanity Fair was more candid than perhaps the writer knew.
He looked on the men and women whose thoughts and actions
developed under his hand, as puppets, and he thereby missed the
sense, ever present with his brother-novelist, of a real human
equality with them. He was capable of love for them, but it was
the love of compassion rather than that of sympathy. . . . We
have little doubt that, to use the words with which Lord Macaulay
concluded his review of Byron, "after the closest scrutiny, there
will still remain much that can only perish with the English
language.'' '

Ainger"'s wit was no mere embroidery : it filled a definite
role in his life. Spontaneous and mercurial though it was, he
had a clear conception of what he meant to do with it. He
hardly ever discussed general subjects, even when they were
literary ones, and he usually avoided the topics of the day, or
any threshing out of ideas. His talk consisted mainly of
allusion, of anecdote, of quotation, elements that cannot exist,
except in an atmosphere of humour; and his genius lay in
their application, more than in original flights. ' His talk
was rich and full ' (to quote a Bristol friend), ' his silences full
of inspiration. He knew exactly how to fill a pause with some
dry comment, irresistibly piquant and droll.' By no means
a gossip, yet he was very personal — and circumspect in his
inquiries about people. These he made with a good deal of
human interest, in which his natural precision played no small
part. He was always put out by vagueness, whether of
speech or impression, and it may have been this neat-minded-
ness which helped him to his taste for verbal quips. In this
he was lucidly masculine, but he almost had a woman's need
of pleasing and, when at his best, a feminine power of making
the person he was talking to feel that he or she was the one
being with whom he desired conversation. ' He who knew so
well how to talk,' continues the same friend, ' was one of those
brilliant listeners, who, by a certain sympathy, shown in every
look and attitude, make men give fully of their best, or even
surprise them into a better best than they had known them-
selves capable of until confronted by such eyes and such


One distinction was pre-eminently his. There are but few
men of whom it can be said, as of him, that they are both
good and witty — and in this he can be compared to his beloved
Charles Lamb. He was fully aware of the danger his gifts
brought with them. ' Wit,' he wrote, ' has a power of its own,
as effective for the moment as argument. ... It is com-
paratively easy to make a person or a cause ridiculous, when a
solid refutation of them would not be possible.' And he laid
his own warning to heart, for among the many sayings of
Canon Ainger, we cannot recall one which is unkind. He a\ as
not without a fine elusive malice, but when he used it, it was
the silver flash of the blade and not its sharpness that we
remember, and the blade, as a rule, was not directed so much
against individuals as against types, against persons who repre-
sented certain tendencies that were ridiculous in his eyes. To
preach outside a pulpit bored him. As we know, he had no
taste for discussion. But he often conveyed serious criticism
of life and books in a whimsy, or an adage. He had been
reading Le Gallienne's Religion of a Literary Man, published
at the ' Bodley Head,' the sign-board of the latest modern

' I read in a Fin-de-Siecle Bard
And then I up and said —
''O give us more of the godly heart
And less of the Bodley Head."'

So, at a dull committee-meeting, he irrelevantly wrote on a
slip of paper and passed it on to Mr. Gosse, who happened to
be his neighbour. His dislikes were always effective, and
deeper subjects than minor poets were hit off by his gift
for mnltnm in parvo. There was nothing to which he objected
more strongly than latitudinarianism ; and once, some time in
the late seventies, when he took up a volume of sermons,
High Hopes, by Congreve, from a friend's table : ' Ah, I
see. High Ropes, by Blondin,' he said, and he put the
book down. But tiie image evoked of the acrobat, then
constantly before men's eyes, seemed to dispose of the work.
Or there is the rhyme, perhaps the best known of his, which
was made at the Macmillans' table, soon after the appearance


of Haweis's book, Music and Morals^ and also of his first-
born child :

' Little Baby Haweis,
Playing with your corals.
Pa will mind your music —
Who will mind your morals ?

And again tlic four nonsense lines — a protest against the
last thing out — which have not hitherto been generally
recognised as his :

'There was an old person of Delhi,
Who couldn't read Crockett's ''Cleg Kelly."
When they said, " It's the fashion,"
He replied in a passion
— " What then ? so is Marie Corelli." '

A characteristic of his wit was his power over quotations,
his quick adaptation of them to his needs. One day a
friend had been describing Miss Fillunger's singing of
Schubert's Hirt mif den Felsen, to Herr Muhlfeld's clarinet
accompaniment. ' That sounds too much like what Lamb said
of pineapple : " If it isn't a sin, it is like enough to sin to
give a pause to a tender conscience." "" This is one of many
instances, too dependent on their context to be quoted. Lines
of poetry and of prose altered to his will, stories, nonsense-
rhymes, were brought forth at a moment's notice, and were
often taken for his own. Nor did this impair his originality;
rather, it seemed to show him as a resourceful administrator
of wit — a born editor of other men's sayings as well as a
producer of his own.

He was not always a good critic of himself. Readers
of his letters will not fail to remark the number of his puns,
or his pride in making them ; indeed, perhaps nobody since
Hood has been so inveterate a punster. In this his taste was
old-fashioned, nor is it likely to appeal to a modern world.
Yet he himself had a value for it. Even here he found place
for the moral sense and tried to marry wit and humour :

' To hear,' he says, in a subtle analysis of the ethics of punning,
* of any ordinary man that he makes puns is properly a warning
to avoid his society. For with the funny man, the verbal coincid-



ence is everything ; there is nothing underlying it, or beyond it.
In the hands of a Hood the pun becomes an element in his fancy,
his humour, his ethical teaching, even his pathos. As ordinarily
experienced, the pun is the irreconcileable enemy of these things.
It could not dwell with them " in one house." Hood saw, and
was the first to show, that the pun might become even their
handmaid ; and in this confidence dared to use it often in his
serious poems, when he was conveying some moral truth or ex-
pressing some profound human emotion, . . . The ordinary pun
is for the most part profoundly depressing, being generally an
impertinence ; while Hood's, at their best, exhilax*ate and fill the
reader with a glow of admiration and surprise. The " sudden
glory" which Hobbes pronounced to be the secret of the pleasure
derived from wit is true of Hood's. . . . He never hesitated to
make the pun minister to higher ends and vindicate its right to
a share in quickening men's best sympathies.'

In Ainger''s case, the pun generally ' ministered"* to humour
and to fancy, though now and again there was a moral. ' He
looked down benignly from the pulpit with a pezc-rental eye,""
he once said of a fashionable clergyman. Many of his sallies,
dependent on the moment only, are too ephemeral for repro-
duction ; others, more tangible, remain. There was one
occasion, at a dinner-party, when he spilt some wine upon the
table. ' You would never have expected me to show such dis-
respect for the cloth,'' he said apologetically to his hostess.
Catastrophes at meal-times seem to have drawn out his wit.
There is a record of a luncheon when the black dress of a
guest of his suffered from an accident with a jar of Crosse and
Black weirs pickles :

'They've spilt all her pickles —
How great is her loss !
They don't suit her Black well.
And so she is Cross,'

he exclaimed directly. No less prompt was his rejoinder one
day, when some one told him that her dressmaker lived next
door to Spencer Wells, the surgeon :

' Next to Mr. Spencer Wells,
Madame White the modiste dwells.
The reason why — are you a guesser.'*
Next to the surgeon comes the dresser.'


His perception of hidden analogies seemed to spring from
words while they were spoken. Even when his jests, as in the
last two instances, were mere exercises of ingenuity, they
showed that kind of tact towards words in which he always
delighted. 'This little book,' he says of Hood's Odes . . .
'made it evident that "verbal wit" (as commonly so-called)
was not necessarily the last resource of the would-be " funny
man"; but in the hands of a poet and humorist was capable
of quite unseen uses and developments.' He himself dealt in
many instances of this kind of witticism :

' When William sings his best^ we view
In one a Bill and invoice too,'

was the Herrick-like couplet he addressed to his friend,
William Smith. Or there were the verses, that he much en-
joyed himself, written on his appointment to the Canonry. ' I
profanely spoke of "cannoning off the red,"' says Mr. Horace
Smith, alluding to this event, ' and he replied with the two
following verses, which he always tried to 2)retend I had
written ' :

(1) ' Ainger 's made Canon, so 'tis said.

Because so very well he read :

" Ah, then," said Smith, demurely winking,

" He's cannoned off the red, I 'm thinking."

(2) ' The Chancellor had been less blamed

If some great preacher he had named :

" Ah, then," said Smith, not even blushin',

" He'd then have cannoned oiF the cushion."'

As to his mere quickness in retort — his feats in rhyme — we
might multiply the instances, were not such instances lifeless
when repeated. They were flashes of electricity, meant to die
with the occasion which engendered them. There was once
a discussion as to rhymes at the Macmillans', and some one
challenged the company to find a rhyme for ' porringer.'
Immediately there came back Ainger's rejoinder :

'The Princess Mary fahi would wed.

They gave the Prince of Orange her,
And now it never can be said,

I 've not a rhyme for "porringer." '


But most of his jokes need himself, his tone, his gesture,
their original viise-en-schie, to produce their irresistibly droll
effect. Among such, perhaps, was his solution of a country-
house difficulty — a difficulty as to how a large party of visitors,
at a place where he was staying, was to divide itself for the
homeward journey between a hired barouche and a worn-out
saddle-horse. ' Mr. White,' he said of a sudden, ' will accom-
pany the party on the bones.' Yet the words written down
sound flat — they miss their context ; and we realise that the
sight of that woe-begone horse, of the unequestrian Mr. White,
and the flustered party in the carriage, could alone give the
quip its vitality.

Ainger was not at his most amusing when he indulged in
merely verbal fun. He was a treasure-house of the good stories
that he had heard, but the turn he gave them made them his
own. And he was not happy till he had found a participator.
' Your story was excellent, and I have already made several
appreciative persons happy with it,' he once wrote to a Bristol
correspondent. ' That was it,' says his friend, ' he made him-
self and others " happy " with good stories.' And perhaps no
one understood as well as he that in intercourse ' the gift
without the giver is bare.' He shared, he seemed to transmit,
exhilaration down an ordinary uninspired dinner-table — and
he liked the sense that he did so. The feeling of how much
he was enjoying himself was one of the most infectious things
about him ; and the converse held good also, for his very
moods were electric and acted upon the whole company, so
that it would catch his silence as at other times it caught his

The ' sudden glory ' of Ainger's wit was its allusiveness — it
was evoked by situation, and seldom crystallised into epigram.
Few of his sayings became current coin, like ' No flowers, by
request,' his bon mot upon the style of the Dictionary of
National Biographtj, made at a dinner in its honour. The
point of others, more intimate, depends upon the persons
concerned. 'What do you feel about this marriage?' asked
some one at the wedding of a very short bride and bridegroom.^

' See p. 299 : Letter to Mrs. Andrew Lang.


' A fortuitous concurrence of atoms,' was his swift reply. Or
there is his comment on an impecunious gentleman who had
married a coloured heiress and did not get on with her. 'It
seems a pity,' he remarked, ' that he should quarrel with his
bread-and-butter, even though it is brown.' Again, when he
was staying with Archdeacon Bather, whose many relations
lived round about, and when he saw his friend's large clan
congregate, as was their Sabbath wont, at the church-door, he
was suddenly heard to mutter :

'And when on Sunday after church
A crowd upon the grass-plot gathers,
Tlie poet-laureate might have said —
" You scarce can see the grass for Bathers."'

He said these things soberly, as if he were making a bare
statement, giving no sign of fun, except a shooting gleam
from his eyes.

The subtle differences between fact and truth, between
lesser and greater, were deftly grasped by Ainger ; and he was
heard to maintain that if a man made a story his own he had
the right to embroider it, for it had passed from the domain
of truth into that of art. And this was piquant, because it
came from the most truthful of men, with the nicest of moral
perceptions, and because he knew^ the due limits of his freedom.

'There are three graces/ he said, 'of which wit, if it is not the
irreconcilable enemy, is at least a dangerous neighbour — the
love of truth, charity and reverence. ... It may have been from
a perception of the inevitable tendency of wit ... to exaggerate,
. . . for the purpose of heightening effect . . . that so sober and
profound a thinker as Pascal declared . . . Diseur de hons mots,
mmivais caradere : not that it is intrinsically immoral to utter a
witticism, but because the desire to amuse is inherently opposed
to a reverence for the sanctity of truth.'

In all this, in its flights and its restrictions, his wit was very
English, and it was, perhaps, at its best when it concerned
men's character or the humours of society. We might almost
venture to say that no Frenchman, even were he Sainte-Beuve,
could possibly understand it ; it is too freakish, too informal,
too humorous.


And when everything is said, it is impossible to recreate
it. With all good talkers this is difficult enough, but in his
case the difficulty is trebled. Wit, like Sydney Smith's, at the
same time greater and less delicate, is comparatively easy to
reproduce, because it has substance and no wings. Ainger's
wit is of a different cast ; when you think that you have it, it
takes flight ; it is gossamer, impossible to hold. Sydney Smith
dealt in generalities of common experience, which appeal to
all sorts of men : he was never too refined — he was irresistibly
exuberant — and subtlety was not what he made for. Ainger
does not handle the affairs of the majority, for his wit mostly
applies to individuals, is often too intricate to be quoted.
And he had a liking for fine shades, which are sometimes un-
read by him who runs. They had, however, one point of
resemblance — their conception of a wit's responsibilities.

' I was always struck,' wrote Ainger, ' by the confession of one
who in his generation was, if not the first wit, certainly ''in the
very first line," and on the whole used that gift as not abusing it,
and in the service of the best and humanest reforms of his time.
In lecturing upon wit ... he used some such language as this :
'' I am convinced that its tendency is to corrupt the understanding
and harden the heart." Sydney Smith was in earnest, I believe,
when he spoke thus. ... A wit and a thinker could not fail to
have learned from the temptations constantly present to himself
the danger incident to those in whose minds wit had got the
upper hand of thought. A habit that weakens the love of truth
can hardly fail to corrupt the understanding. By keeping the
mind's eye fixed upon the more superficial i*esemblances between
things, it must hinder that growth in wisdom which is the prime
duty of a spiritual being. Nor is it likely that a gift which looks
for the laughter and applause of the moment as its reward, and
which lends itself so readily to the purposes of scorn, should leave
undisturbed the outflow of the affections. The desire for popular-
ity is itself demoralising, and wit is almost always unscrupulous,
for in unscrupulousness lies much of its power. . . . Wit is seldom a
pioneer or a reformer ... it has to study the taste of majorities.
... It tends to dull the sense of the social charities of every day.
. . . But the question remains unanswered, What are we to do in
this matter .'' Are wit and humour to be repudiated .-* . . . Are
we to shun a witticism as a thing in itself disgraceful.'' . . . The


experiment has been tried. The student of history must draw his
own conclusions as to the success of the attempt. Puritanism
had its success, and did a woi-k which nothing but a strong religi-
ous impulse could have effected. But its position was necessarily
unstable, for its ideal of life was incomplete. . . . God gives us
taste, fancy, high spirits. If we ignore them, they avenge them-
selves upon us by leading us astray. They are talents and there-
fore handmaids for some end, and we must use them for some
end, either in God's service or the devil's. Is there then a
spiritual service which such gifts can render ? Assuredly there is.

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 19 of 32)