Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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' An even more thrilling and perhaps inevitable use of the
double meaning of a word ' (he continues), ' is to be found in a
stanza from the ' Song of the Shirt ' : —

' While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.'

This is probably the most pathetic pun in the language, and is in
itself sufficient answer to those who would question the legitimacy
of this form of wit in the hands of genius. And that Hood's
peculiar faculty justifies the use of the word genius cannot, I
think, be gainsaid. As a poet, he cannot indeed be placed in
the first rank, or even in the second, but genius is no question
of place in a class-list. Hood has a real individuality, which
gives him the primary claim to the title ; and he has charm and
sincerity to boot. Through these things he lives and will live,
when the manifold echoes of other poets, which abound in every
generation, are died away and forgotten,'

Other links bound the younger to the elder humorist.
Hood's sad story attracted Ainger, and small wonder that it
did so. From the day that, at twenty-two, Hood was left
with the whole charge of his four orphaned sisters, to his last
struggles, twenty-four years after, with failure and poverty and
heart-disease, Alfred Ainger follows his fortunes with never-
failing love and with that understanding of the heart which


seems to lend simplicity to style. The sudden responsibility
which thus fell on one so young and so poor was a point in
common between the life of Hood and that of Lamb ; and a
point which must have especially come home to their bio-
grapher. One of the only lucky events in Thomas Hood's
life was, indeed, his meeting with Charles Lamb, and his
record of it is, to those who know it, worth more than many
of his verses. He was already the sub-editor of Taylor and
Hessey's magazine, when one day, as he sat correcting proofs
in the office, ' the door opened and in came a stranger, a figure
remarkable at a glance, with a fine head on a small spare
body, supported by almost immaterial legs. He was clothed
in sables of a bygone fashion, but there was something want-
ing — or something present — about him that certified that he
was neither a divine, nor a physician, nor a schoolmaster. . . .
He looked . . . like (what he really was) a literary modern
antique, a new-old author, a living anachronism, contemporary
at once with Burton the elder and Colman the younger.
Meanwhile he advanced with rather a peculiar gait, his walk
was plantigrade, and with a cheerful " How d' ye ? " and one
of the blandest, sweetest smiles that ever brightened a manly
countenance, held out two fingers to the editor. . . . After
the literary business had been settled, the editor invited his
contributor to dinner, adding " We shall have a hare.'' " And
— and — and — and many friends." The hesitation in his
speech, and tiie readiness of the allusion, were alike character-
istic of the . . . delicate-minded and large-hearted Charles
Lamb.' How the friendship went on growing; how Hood
was admitted to the circle of Elia's cronies ; how he married
Miss Jane Reynolds, the sister of Keats's friend ; how
children were born to him and how he loved them ; how five
out of seven died before they grew up and how he toiled
courageously to keep them ; how he tried every journalistic
venture and always failed to make money ; how at last he left
England with his family and lived in exile for economy's sake,
first in Germany, then at Ostend ; how he returned to make
a success with Hood's Oz&n and yet to reap no monetary gain ;
and how all his life was cheered by friendship and made


beautiful by his devotion to his wife, who remained his
* dearest and best' till he died, his hand in hers — all this
Canon Ainger tells us with the quiet distinction that is his.
Perhaps nowhere do we see Hood more clearly — the Hood
that Ainger would have us see — than in some words of the
poet's own in his preface to his National Tales^ his only
volume of prose.

'. . . Because I have jested elsewhere, it does not follow that
I am incompetent for gravity, of which any owl is capable, or
proof against melancholy, which besets even the ass. Those
who can be touched by neither of these moods rank lower
indeed than both of these creatui'cs. It is from none of the
player's ambition, which has led the buffoon by a rash step into
the tragic buskin, that I assume the sadder humour, but because
I know from certain passages that such affections are not foreign
to my nature. During my short lifetime I have often been as
"sad as night," and not like the young gentleman of France,
merely from wantonness. It is the contrast of such leaden and
golden fits that lend a double relish to our days. A life of mere
laughter is like music without its bass ; or a picture (conceive it)
of vague, unmitigated light ; whereas the occasional melancholy,
like these grand rich glooms of old Rembrandt, produces an
incomparable effect, and a very grateful relief.'

These words may be a clue to the attraction which Ainger
felt for Thomas Hood, because, again, they are a clue to so
much that he recognised in himself. And perhaps the most
thoughtful pages in the memoir are those in which he sums
up the effect of Hood's qualities upon our conception of
poetry : —

' Indeed the peculiar genius of Hood may oblige us to recon-
sider more than one of our favourite literary canons ; and among
them, the relation of Wit and Poetry. Hood's wit is constantly
poetical, and his poetry is so frequently witty as to make the
division of his verse, for editorial purposes, into " serious " and
"humorous," a matter of real difficulty. We are all agreed that
wit is heightened by an element of poetic fancy. The question
remains : — Is Poetry, when in intention serious, helped or
hindered, strengthened or weakened, by admixture with Wit .''
The question has often been raised and discussed in connection


with the euphuistic poets — " Metaphysical " or Fantastic— of the
seventeenth century, Cowley, Lovelace, Cleveland, and the rest.
And the question has been so far settled, that we are all agreed
that the habitual use of " conceits," wherein is mere ingenuity,
is fatal to any enduring pleasure. In this shape the thing was
then a fashion, and faded in due course like all other fashions.
The bulk of the poetry of these men is unreadable and forgotten.
But yet there were true poets among them who now and then
made it abundantly clear that Wit and Poetry are two sisters,
who may " d^vell together in one house." Cowley, who has
become, thi'ough Johnson's famous memoir, the typical example
of the English concettist, has proved, if only by his famous com-
parison of Bacon to the Lawgiver on Mount Pisgah — privileged
to behold, but not to enter the Promised Land — that what is in
essence pure wit is not distinguishable from the very highest

' Herbert, Crashaw, Donne, in like manner, have their abun-
dant and perishable affectations. Yet all of these in turn show
how true wit may subserve the highest aims of the Poet ; and
that in fact, so far from Wit and Poetry being irreconcilable,
they shade and pass into one another by gradations quite
imperceptible. Who shall decide, on the moment, whether
Waller's couplet —

''The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed.
Lets in new light through chinks which time had made " —

is to be pronounced witty or poetical .^ The truth is that it is
both ; and that the two are fused, beyond possibility of separa-
tion, by the intensity and sincerity of the Truth enforced.'

The rest of Ainger''s literary work in the last twelve years
of his life consisted mainly in his lectures at the Royal
Institution and elsewhere ; in a few pleasurable articles con-
tributed to The Pilots notably two about Chaucer and one on
' Charm in Literature ' ; and in his Life of Crahhe, written for
the English Men of Letters Series.

As for his lectures, the best ones are, as always, upon
Shakespeare, and his finest sayings, on the moral greatness of
the plays. There is, indeed, nothing to add to our comments
on his earlier lectures, and perhaps the readiest way to prove
the constant unity of thought that they show is to gather


together two or three passages from them, and to let the reader
judge for himself. Those that follow are only a few examples
among many which are of much the same kind.

The first is in answer to the argument that Shakespeare
was the result of the great age in which he lived, and that
he could not have existed without a public that shared his

'If all Shakespeare's contemporary poets showed even in
general outline the qualities we note and admire in him, then a
very strong case would be made out for this view. But is this
so? Take, for example, the instance of Shakespeare's contem-
porary, Marlowe. By general agreement his verse was the finest
(" Marlowe's mighty line," as Jonson called it) of the time, next
to Shakespeare's. His power of conceiving and treating tragic
situations was marvellous. Passages in his plays are of singular
power and grandeur. But the ethical virtue of his dramas — all
that quality which should have come to him from the hopes,
aspirations, new-born joys of his time — was missing. He had had
a more thorough school and college education than Shakespeare ;
he was in no less close touch with the world of wits and scholars
in London ; but he was dissipated and profligate and defiantly
anti-religious, and died in a tavern brawl. He had no humour,
as far as it is possible to discover, and no power, apparently, to
conceive the beautiful or admirable in the female character. If
it was the age that evoked what was finest and most character-
istic in Shakespeare, why did it fail to produce something akin
to it in Marlowe ? Must not the answer be that it was not there
in Marlowe to be evoked } Shakspeare's lago was a scoundrel,
and a pessimist, but surely he was right when he said, "'Tis
in ourselves that we are thus and thus." " The abysmal depths of
personality " will not bear to be neglected, I think, in our
estimates of the sources of a poet's strength or weakness. If a
man may be a pessimist in an optimistic age, might he not be an
optimist in a pessimistic one .''...

* It is this quality of humanily which constitutes the supreme
ethical virtue of Shakespeare and (be it in justice said) of the
noblest of his contemporaries. It is not the poet's own ethical
preaching; not the preaching of the good and virtuous person-
ages of the play ; not even the presence of good and virtuous
characters themselves, that accounts for the final impression left
on us by any one of his dramas as a whole. Nor is it, as I have


said, any strict and invariable notion of ''poetical justice." Of
poetical justice, as that imbecile phrase is ordinarily understood,
there is none in Shakespeare, or at least so little that some
foreign critics, and even critics at home, have thought good to
scorn at the denouements of some of the dramas, because the
punishment lights often upon innocent and guilty alike. . . .
Shakespeare, when he is dealing with the serious issues of life,
never regards what the "barren spectator" (for whom he seems
ever to have felt a well-grounded contempt) would like to have
seen. . . . The tragedy that Nicholas Nickleby translated for Mr.
Crummies contains the kind of episode that pleases the ground-
ling. . . . But Shakespeare did not write moral fairy-tales, even
when he took in hand a Midsummer Night's Dream or a
Tempest. . . .

'To represent on the stage Margate Sands, or Charing Cross,
or a busy day on the Stock Exchange, with every detail attended
to, will attract tens of thousands. . . . And though this kind of
realism is very crude, and properly condemned in literary and
artistic circles, there are other kinds of realism which seem to
be held quite legitimate. To reflect certain sections of modern
society, to show smart people always making rude answers to one
another (which is called " epigram "), and of course to make them
sail very near the wind in indelicate allusion, this, because a fair
transcript of a certain society of the day, is provided as the attrac-
tion of many modern comedies. But it is not of the outward
life, or social manners of people, that Shakespeare was thinking.
" Nature " with him meant " human nature," not any particular
type or temporary garb that it wears. But he meant more than
this. He meant the laws which govern human nature ; the laws
of cause and effect, of conduct and the consequences of conduct.
To these it was his business to " hold up the mirror " ; and unless
he did so, how was it possible that the characters he drew should
appear other than either sentimental abstractions or grotesque
and impertinent interpolations in the plot .''...

' Falstaff's wit is magnificent, but it is absolutely unscrupulous.
When he gets the best in argument it is always by an intellectual
coup de maitre, never by a moral. Exaggeration (which means, in
effect, "never mind truth — go in for point "J has never been raised
to such an art. " I am out of pocket by you," poor Mrs. Quickly
complains of him with bitter tears. "You owe me money. Sir
John, for your diet and by-drinkings . . . and now you pick a
quarrel to beguile me of it; I bought you a dozen of shirts to


your back." To which FalstafF retorts: "Dowlas, filthy dowlas"
— dowlas is one of the coarsest kinds of linen, you will under-
stand — " I have given them away to bakers' wives, and they have
made bolters of them." ... It is indeed splendide mendax ! a
miracle of exaggeration. . . .

' Or again, take the instance of his promptness ... in what
follows: "And for a retreat! how swiftly will this Feeble, the
woman's tailor, run off! " He will be so useful in a retreat. What
magnificent resource in the mind who thought of this ! How
magnificent — and how unscrupulous ! . . . Shakespeare has done
him no wrong — he has built up indeed a character on the false
conception of a noble Englishman ; but he has committed no
treason against the eternal truths of the human conscience.
"Oldcastle died a martyr, and this (FalstafF) is not the man."
This was true, and needed saying in vindication of the great
Lollard, but "fat" Jack witnessed also in his death to certain
truths as to " conduct being four-fifths of life," of which the
world will never cease to need Shakespeare's imperishable re-
minder. . . .

'Shakespeare, after the lightest and most fantastic of his
comedies, is never without the felt presence of this moral ele-
ment. It is this which from first to last — though the incidents
may be terrible, or ghastly, or improbable — keeps the whole
range of his drama sweet ; the one strongest, most enduring
charm ; the thing on which his enduring popularity with all sorts
and conditions of men most surely rests. . . .

'Suffering, and the transfiguration of all noble suffering into
victory ; goodness defeated but never humiliated ; the littleness
of man always made to bring into light, not shadow, the real
greatness of man — it is in the "strength of that meat" that we
rise up fortified from the study of these mighty works.'

If Ainger was at his best, he was also at his happiest in
the company of Shakespeare. And not only when he read
or wrote. ' To see him,' says Dr. Ward, ' when he could give
himself up wholly to Shakespeare — and be, as it were, totus in
illo — was indeed a sight worth seeing. I wish I could date
a visit which my brother-in-law, George Lovcday (who was of
service to him in connection with his edition of Lamb's Letters)^
and I paid with him to Stratford-on-Avon, but it must
have been some time in the late sixties or early seventies.


We slept two nights, I think, at the " Red Horse," where I
wish Ainger might have met Washington Irving — only, as
the Scotchman said, this "couldna be"" — and we had time
for a walk to Charlecote and through what we were still
young and happy enough to believe to have been Mr. Justice
Shallow's deer-park. Eheu ! ' And with Stratford Ainger's
name will always be associated, for there it was, in the Parish
Church and close by his master's famous bust, that he
preached his sermon upon Shakespeare, at the dedication of
the pulpit given by Sir Theodore Martin, in memory of his
wife, Helen Faucit,^ the actress of Rosalind and Juliet.

Apart from Shakespeare, Ainger's later lectures ranged
over many subjects: over Swift and Burns, Cowper and Scott,
Children's Books in the past, and his journey to trace Charles
Lamb in Hertfordshire. And in all of them the same remark
holds good — it is the moral judgments which are strongest.
' There was always something of the prophet in FitzGerald's,
as in all fine criticism' — so Ainger once wrote of Edward
FitzGerald ; ^ and if we apply the saying to himself, it is of his
moral insight that it will be found to hold good. In every
writer that he deals with, it is the ethical quality that he first
makes for; this it is which half unconsciously governs his
opinion of the poet or the novelist. And it seems for this
reason mainly, that, as a recent critic and admirer points
out,^ he is least at home with Swift ; for this reason, too, it
may be added, he is most at his ease with Cowper. But here
again, and in all his later writings, we can only get some
notion of his thought by quoting from his work ; by putting
together a few of the extracts that seem the most clearly to
reveal him. We give them without further explanation.

' Swift's heart and his creed were in deadly conflict ; his heart
pleaded with him to be human, his creed said, " To be human is
to be despicable or brutal." When he looked on Stella, his heart

^ Her maiden name, and that under which she had acted. She afterwards
became Lady Martin.

" Hampstead Annual, 1900.

' Times Literary Supplement, Dec. ist, 1905. (Review of Lectures and


may have often said, ''Take her and be happy/' his creed said,
" No, wedded love is also a delusion and a snare." ' ^

' James Smith, of Rejected Addresses fame, described the
poet Crabbe as " Pope in worsted stockings." It is a smart
epigram, but no more precisely true than epigrams usually are.
But if it were legitimate we might further adapt it to Cowper
and call him " Pope in a white tie." Not that that would be true
either. ... It was neither the moralisings nor the religious
denunciations that made these poems a revelation and a delight.
It was not even the witty and felicitous lines and phrases which
are . . . still embedded in the daily speech of many who never
read a poem of Cowper's straight through in their lives. . . .
Rather was it the home-felt scenes in the " Winter Morning's
Walk," and the "Walk at Noon," and the "Winter Evening"
descriptions . . . prompted by deep personal affection and deep
personal piety. . . . Here are no longer vague platitudes about
the " Grove" and the " plain " and the " bowers " (to rhyme with
"flowers"), but the eye of the minute observer — minute as
Wordsworth or Tennyson.' ^

' Burns's songs, in this day when such helpless and aimless
critical deliverances are heard all round about us, come in oppor-
tunely to remind us that in literature and in art the interval
between first and second-rate is practically infinite, while those
between second, third, and fourth are comparatively insigni-
ficant.' 3

' Instead of adopting a style like that of some one distinguished
predecessor, let us adopt a style (our young men seem to say) as
unlike as possible to anything ever used before. Instead of a
style used by sornebody, we will invent a style used by nobody.
And many a young author has tried this last plan, and has often
received a most encouraging reception from the critics on his
appearance, on the strength of it.'

(After saying that in old days new writers used to seek fame by
imitating great writers.) * The great spirits of our literature who
stand with heads far above the fleeting mists of earth, not often
fail to recognise kindred greatness. As " deep answers unto
deep," so "height answers unto height," and the mighty ones
who tower above the crowd know one another from afar, and are
not deceived.' *

* Lecture on Swift. ^ Lecture on Cowper.

* Lecture on Burns. * Lecture on Scott.


'What made Crabbe a new force in English poetry was that in
his verse Pity appears, after a long oblivion, as the true antidote
to Sentimentalism.'

' Crabbe's couplets are more often pedestrian rather than

' He is the truest realist who does not suppress any side of that
which may be seen, if looked for.'

The three last sayings are not quoted from the Lectures,
but from Ainger's latest work, the Life of Crabbe. When it
appeared, in the autumn of 1903, it was judged very variously.
Two well-known newspapers, he told a friend, ' complain that
I am only a half-hearted admirer of Crabbe, and that
(apparently) I do not gush sufficiently. This is rather a
disappointment to one who read and cried over Crabbe when
he was a boy, and undertook the present task in order to
emphasise what singularly fine qualities the poet has, not-
withstanding all defects of taste and technique which
meet one at every turn. Surely the tide has turned with a
vengeance, in critical quarters at least. The man in the

really speaks of Crabbe as if he ranked with Homer and

Shakespeare,'' ^

In this statement of his. Canon Ainger unconsciously hits
off both the strong and the weak point of his book. He had
once cried over Crabbe, and so, however long ago that had
been, he can still arrest us when he writes of him. But he
feels the faults of taste and technique so much that he misses
some of Crabbe's finest qualities. For though he does full
justice to Crabbe's moral insight, to his piety, his genius for
profound epigram, his great powers of description, he gives no
impression of his intensity, nor has he any grasp of his gift
for dramatic situation. The truth is that he and Crabbe
were not really made for one another. Most biographers
need enthusiasm for their subject, and Ainger needed it
especially, because, when it did not inspire him, he was apt
to dwell on the points most like himself in the person he was
chronicling and rather to slur over other facts which should

^ Quoted by Mr. Holden Hutton, in Biirford Papers, as having been said to
him. (Essay on ' George Crabbe,' Burford Papers.)



be as salient, or more so. ' The humourist and the punster,"
he wrote of Crabbe,^ ' contend for predominance in the breast
of this polished gentleman and scholar,' and the words do not
ill fit himself. From this point of view, he judges the poet
finely ; he knows him well, too, as teacher, as parish priest, as
struggling poet, and the tale of his poverty in London and of
his rescue by Burke is admirably told. But he does not know
Crabbe as a stern and passionate realist — although he knows
that he was one ; hence all his stating of the fact does not
transmit it to his readers, nor does his volume convey that
sense of a central truth which gives warmth and unity to the

Yet when he comes to the critical task — the task of
analysing, not appraising — when he sets about defining the
uses and abuses of realism, there is no word to add or take

' A poet is not the " best " painter of nature merely because he
chooses one aspect of human character and human fortunes rather
than another. If he must not conceal the sterner side, equally is
he bound to remember the sunnier and more serene. . , . He
must remember that though there is a skeleton in every cupboard,
it must not be dragged out for a purpose, nor treated as if it were
the sole inhabitant. He must deal with the happiness of life, and
not only with its miseries ; with its harmonies and not only its
dislocations. He must remember the thousand homes in which is
to be found the quiet and faithful discharge of duty, inspired at
once and illumined by the family affections, and not forget that
in such as these the strength of a country lies. ... It was
because Crabbe too often laid greater stress on the ugliness than
on the beauty of things that he fails to that extent to be the full
and adequate painter and poet of humble life.'

'It is,' he says elsewhere in the book, 'to the "graver mind"

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 30 of 32)