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to see me about them, and then asked me to dine, to
meet Swinburne. I accepted and went one evening
to the Pines. The dinner was very EngHsh; I mean


by that there were no modern kickshaws or French
sorbets or savories; but very plain, old-fashioned
English fare : there were two chickens, I remember,
and roast beef and apple pie with custard — enough
for a dozen men, and a couple of bottles of sound
Burgundy to promote good-will. We all appeared
to be blessed with keen appetites, and after dinner
settled down to talk.

I don't know why, but the conversation fell on
Henley and his enthusiastic praise of Monte Crista
and The Three Musketeers, which seemed to me
boyish, exaggerated. I ventured to remark that I
would rather have written Le Vicomte de Brage-
lonne than all the rest of Dumas put together were
It only for the character of Louise de la Valliere,
and I was astonished to find that Swinburne agreed
with me enthusiastically, indeed he put la Valliere
"among the finest women-portraits in French liter-
ature." I could not help saying a word for Manon
Lescaut and La Cousine Bette, — and the Master
admitted their claims to supremacy with delighted
smile and nod.

Emboldened by this accord I ventured to ask
whether he really placed Hugo beside Shakespeare,
and was dumbfounded to find that he did; he quoted
some verses of Hugo — from "La Legende des
Siecles," I think; magnificent rhetoric which he gave
wonderfully, his whole face lighting up, the auburn
mane thrown back, the greenish eyes flaming, the


great dome of the forehead lending weight to the
swift sonorous words.

I did not dare to touch on Shakespeare with him:
he had evidently been accustomed and encouraged
to play pontiff to such an extent that to have differed
from him would have been lese-majeste at the least,
and, besides, his opinions on the subject were known
to me, and I had no desire to shake them.

I preferred to keep the ball rolling while study-
ing his face and manner. When he quoted poetry
he mouthed it, as all poets are inclined to do, bring-
ing out the value of the metre at the cost of the sense
and magic of expression. Poets are often mu-
sicians first and intelligences afterwards.

His pronunciation of French was that of a native,
and he seemed to know all French poetry by heart.
To something he said I muttered Prudhomme's
"Je suis las des mots. . . ." and again he caught fire
ancl went on quoting with intense enjoyment the
great verse and hopeless refrain:

Pour ne pas sentir a ma derniere heure

Que le coeur se fend;
Pour ne plu3 penser, pour que rhomme meure

Comme est ne I'enfant.

Vous qui m'aiderez daus men agonie,

Ne me ditcs rien
Faites que j'entends un pen d'harmonie

Et je mourrai bien.


I have never met anyone whose knowledge of
Greek, English and French poetry was at all com-
parable to Swinburne's; as soon as you began to
quote any fine passage he would take it up and go
on declaiming endlessly.

When he got interested he crossed his legs and
uncrossed them, tossing one upon the other rapidly,
while his fingers were twitching and his head jerk-
ing about, almost like an epileptic. He was evi-
dently intensely excitable; the mind and nerves far
stronger than the body — over-engined, so to speak,
like Shakespeare. Indeed, in a thousand ways he
reminded me of what Shakespeare must have been:
the same swiftness of speech and thought, the same
nervous excitability, and much the same physique,
the little podgy body, the domed forehead, the
auburn hair, only the eyes were different — Shake-
speare's a light hazel, Swinburne's a greenish-grey.
I picture Shakespeare as a little larger and stronger,
with a more resolute jaw and chin; handsomer too,
if his contemporaries are to be believed, and of far
sweeter manners.

I wanted Swinburne to tell me of Rossetti, in
whom I have always been intensely interested; but
with characteristic courtliness he referred me to
Mr. Theodore Watts, who "knew Rossetti most in-

I felt impelled to follow his lead, for already sev-
eral things had become plain to me, the most impor-


tant being that Swinburne in his books had said all
he had to say of any moment, and could not be
led by me to peer into the unknown or unfamiliar;
I was too late; his mind had passed the period of
growth and become fossilized. Swinburne was far
older at sixty-two or three than Carlyle was at
eighty; his intellectual sympathies were cast iron;
they could not be widened, whereas Carlyle was as
eager to hear and consider new ideas as a boy.
When I mentioned Carlyle with praise, the light
died out of Swinburne's face; it became lifeless and
forbidding; clearly his mind was made up about
Carlyle and could not be altered.

Altogether Swinburne seemed to me a creature of
extraordinary talent rather than a man of real
genius. Take away from him his divine gift of song
and he would hardly have become known in litera-
ture. There was no elevation in his mind; no hu-
mor in his outlook; no width of understanding; no
fertility of ideas. He was an astonishing poet, but
not by any means an astonishing intelligence; he had
five or six main ideas, or rather sympathies, and no
wish to enlarge the meagre store. It was evidently
Mr. Theodore Watts who inspired the so-called Im-
perialism of his later years. He was a Jingo at
sixty, thanks to this Intimate friend, or dry nurse as
I called him In my thought, just as he was a republi-
can at thirty, thanks to Mazzini and Hugo. He
never seemed to have grown mentally after his sev-


enteenth year. It was his want of Intelligence which
left him stranded at forty-five as the poet of youth.
Still, he was always an Interesting and attractive
personality; he had high courtesies in him and In-
born loyalties, and an aristocratic contempt for all
conventional lies and false values. He always lived,
too, In a nobly serious way for the things of the
spirit, the things that have enduring worth and the
consecration of the Ideal.

The English people should have insisted on bury-
ing Swinburne in the Abbey, were it only for his high
idealism of character; but English authority was too
ignorant, Its temper too conventional, and, after all,
it is perhaps as well that this flaming eager spirit
should not be housed with second-rate politicians and
actors. I like to think of Shakespeare in the little
church at Stratford and of Swinburne down there at
Bonchurch in ground shaken by the swing and
thunder of the long rollers. Great men should be
alone in death as in life, and no better resting-place
could be found for Swinburne than the seashore
where he had played as a boy.

Did he not write :

But when my time shall be,
Oh^ Mother, O my Sea,
Alive or dead, take me.
Me, too, my Mother.


MANY years ago I gave the following pen
portrait of Matthew Arnold, and almost
immediately after received a number of letters re-
gretting that I had not written at greater length
about him. Some of my correspondents insisted that
Arnold was a great English poet, and ought to
have had much more said about him, or else nothing
at all. Perhaps they were right; at any rate, I am
inclined to follow their wishes in the matter and
report a few of the many conversations I had with
Matthew Arnold in the ten years of our acquain-
tance. I shall perhaps be forgiven for reproducing
here the pen and ink portrait of him to which I
allude above. I called him the latest Apostle to the

"A tall man, who. In spite of slight frame and
square shoulders, had at least in later life something
of the scholar's stoop. A rather long, pale, brood-
ing face, hair parted in the middle over a head a
little too flat for thoroughgoing belief; a long, well-
shaped nose — a good rudder — a strong, but not bony
chin ; altogether a well-balanced face, lighted by pale
greyish thoughtful eyes. Two side whiskers lent



their possessor the air of a butler of a good house,
the shaven lip allowed one to see the sinuous, curv-
ing lips of the orator or poet.

"He believed himself to be both a poet and prose-
writer of the first rank; his contemporaries took him
at his own valuation, for he had the hall-mark of
Oxford upon him, and his father was well known;
but the present generation is inclined to question his
claims. As a prose-writer he preached too much
from too narrow a choice of texts, and he was rather
a poet of distilled distinction and cultivation than of
inspiration or passion.

"By intellect shall no man storm Heaven: the
great of heart alone do that, and the passion-driven
and the world-weary."

I had met Matthew Arnold here and there a
great many times before I got the chance of a good
frank talk with him ; he was always very courteous,
very ingenuous even; he never shut himself up in
armored politeness as Browning usually did: he
was always charmingly open and frank, like a well-
bred schoolboy. Yet somehow or other I had no
opportunity of a long talk with him for some years.
One day at a luncheon party the whole table began
discussing Mr. Rider Haggard's Jess, which had
just then appeared, and Matthew Arnold was asked
to give his opinion of it. The author was present,
I remember. Matthew Arnold spoke very warmly
of the pleasure the book had given him, and the in-


terest he had taken in it; but confessed at length that
he hked the matter-of-fact sister better than he hked
Jess. He took, in fact, a quite naive, almost boyish
view of the book. As the party broke up he said he
would like to speak with me about something, and
we drove together to the Athenaeum Club. On the
way I asked him how he came to praise Jess so
warmly. His praise had astonished me I confessed,
as the book had no weight or place in letters; all of
which to my astonishment he admitted at once with
a certain amused carelessness.

"Why then did you praise the book?" I asked.

"I feel," he replied, "that an old fellow should be
very sympathetic to the young writers, even if they
are not all Thackerays and Fieldings. Can we ex-
pect giants always, or should we not rather be thank-
ful for what we get? Jess is a good healthy book
enough, schoolboyish, as you say; but then we Eng-
lish rather like schoolboy fiction. Robinson Crusoe
and To7n Jones are both rather boyish, and David
Copperfield, Is that profound?" and he smiled at me

"Forgive me," I replied, "as you praised the book
out of kindness I have nothing to say. But you
know the young ones hope always that their seniors
will rise to the height of every argument with some
great word of exact appreciation. But you wanted
to ask me about something, you said?"

"I wanted to ask you," he replied, "about a quite


personal matter. I have been invited to lecture in
America. I should very much like to do it; partly
perhaps from vanity, chiefly I think because the
terms offered me are very good. But I should not
like to make a fiasco of it. You know America in-
timately; I was wondering if you could tell me
whether I should be hkely to succeed or to fail. Be-
lieve me, I am not asking in order to be flattered:
I really should like to know before I make up my
mind whether to go or stay. Your opinion will
have weight with me."

"It is delightfully flattering of you," I replied, "to
ask for my opinion. But, as you have asked me, I
can only tell you the plain unvarnished truth. There
are a few people in every city in America, and even
in some towns, who will know you before they see
you, who will be able to understand and appreciate
the best you can give them; but they are so few, these
chosen ones, so few, that they are utterly swamped
by the masses of people who will come to see you
because they have heard from others that you are
a great poet, a great English poet, too, and they
will flock to hear you and measure you by their
standard, which is not yours at all. They will judge
you primarily as an orator or rather as a public
speaker. Is your voice resonant and good, your de-
livery clear and strong? if so they will say you are
'magnetic,' and will be prepared to believe that you
are a great man; but if your delivery is halting and


slow and your elocution faulty, they will probably go
away to make lewd jests about you ; in matters of art
they are barbarians."

"Goodness me," he exclaimed, "you frighten me.
I have no elocution whatever: I even read my own
poetry very badly, I believe. I remember my wife
used to say to me, 'I cannot bear to hear you read
your verses, Matthew, you do mouth them so.' I am
afraid," he went on, laughing heartily at the remi-
niscence, "I am afraid, you know, that all poets are
inclined to lay too much stress upon the metrical
quality of their poetry. I have noticed that actors
usually slur over the metrical quality and accentuate
the sense. Is that what you call good elocution?"

"It Is what the average American calls good elo-
cution," I said, "which is more to the point. Per-
sonally, I prefer whatever is peculiar. Individual,

"I see," he said, as if thinking over it, "I see.
You don't think then that I should be a success in

"A success with the few, certainly," I replied,
"but not with the many, certainly not with the many
unless you practise elocution vigorously before start-

"It frightens me," he said, "It seems a little ter-

"But surely," I went on, "you never thought you
would be a popular success in America; you would


not be a popular success in London, where the so-
ciety Is aristocratic, where the masses take their tone
from the few, where popular opinion Is formed from
above, like water on sand, which as it sinks spreads
over ever-widening strata. Even in our aristocratic
society you would be above the heads of all but the
best of your audiences. How can you hope to be
popular? Your appeal is to the future, and not to
the present."

"It is very kind of you to put It In that way," he
said, "and perhaps true; still, it disappoints one a
little. I am afraid, though, you are right," he added,
after a pause, "nevertheless, I think you have de-
cided me to go," and he began to laugh, "perhaps
for the sake of that remnant you speak of who will
understand and appreciate."

"Oh, yes," I replied warmly, "a remnant that
will understand you better, I am inclined to believe,
than you are understood even In England. Only
they will make no sign: you will hardly know that
they are among your audience ; but they will be there
eager to see and hear the man who wrote 'Thyrsis'
and 'The Scholar-Gipsy' and 'Dover' and a dozen
other splendid things."

I remember another talk just after he had writ-
ten a poem on a dog — an exquisite requiem — for
The Fortnightly Review. I went to ask him to write
mc an appreciation of Ernest Renan, whom I had


met and had had long talks with In the College de

"I see you have divined It," said Matthew Ar-
nold, "divined that Renan was always my teacher;
my teacher in the view he took of St. Paul and the
Bible generally, though to me he seemed a little su-
perficial in his treatment of Jesus. But a great
teacher, nevertheless, a man who appealed to the
soul always. He was the first, too, to discover for
us the Celtic genius. A great writer!"

I felt inclined to ask him why he had never ad-
mitted in print the greatness of his debt to Renan,
but thought it more courteous to restrain myself.

On another occasion Arnold showed, I thought, a
distinct vein of humor.

"You know," he said, "it is very funny to me —
years ago when I wrote prose all the editors whom
I knew used to say to me:

" 'Oh, Arnold, why don't you write poetry?'

"And now as soon as I begin writing poetry you
say to me :

" 'Oh, Arnold, why don't you write prose?' " and
he laughed heartily at the implied criticism.

After his return from America I wrote asking
him to write something for me, and then went to
see him in order to urge him to contribute.

"Don't ask me!" he cried, "don't ask me. I will
not write articles; America has saved me from that;
it has given me money and made me independent,


that much I owe it. But you were quite right about
the audiences. The remnant is utterly swamped by
the vulgar opinion of the mass. What an opinion!
What a mass! What a civilization! Almost it
makes one despair of humanity. The vulgarity of
them doesn't frighten one as much as their intensity
— the energy, force, and tumult of them all
rushing — whither? It frightens me to think of

One can hardly help asking: Was Matthew Ar-
nold a great poet; one of the fixed stars in the lit-
erary heaven; will he live there with Browning and
Swinburne and Tennyson? He thought he would;
declared, indeed, more than once, that his future
place was at least as well assured as theirs.

''Tennyson has no ideas," he would say, "Brown-
ing's genius is almost hidden by scoriae; my little
things are slight if you will, but surely they are of
gold — seven times refined."

Arnold was mistaken in this self-estimate, alto-
gether mistaken, I believe. He was right in many
things; his opinions on matters of the day and hour
were usually worth hearing; he was an excellent jour-
nalist, the best indeed of his time; but hardly more
than that; to the last he remained a sort of smaller
Renan, Renan at second-hand, a puritanic Renan.
He brought no new and fruitful ideas into life; he
created no new types; he is scarcely more than a


graceful singer of commonplaces. Sometimes, when
looking at him, I thought he was a Jew; there was
surely Hebrew blood In his veins; at any rate, his
deepest words are about religion and the life of the

The sea of faith

Was once^ too, at the full, and round earth's shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.

Retreating to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear,

And naked shingles of the world.

He had no Inkling that the tide of faith was al-
ready on the turn and would soon be again at flood.

Matthew Arnold as Critic

Since writing of Arnold's poetry and person I
have found myself plagued by his critical prose work,
and must at all costs try to rid my soul of the unholy
obsession. I think I may dismiss his critical writ-
ings on religion and on politics without more ado.
His views on religion were taken from Renan and
"Bayswatered" down to suit English taste with
cheap English puritanic prejudices altogether un-
worthy of a master. His views on politics were even
more superficial and vain, though he said things about


the middle and lower classes in England which are as
witty as they are true. But his best things in this
field were all borrowed from Heine and he took
care not to sponsor any significant part of Heine's
tremendous indictment of the British oligarchy and
British laws. One doubts whether he was capable
even of appreciating its power and pertinence.

Inasmuch as Arnold was first and last a man of
letters, one is surely doing him no disservice by treat-
ing his literary judgments alone.

It is curious to notice that even his conceit has
some relation to his power as the shadow has
some resemblance to the figure. He thought far too
highly of his own academic poetry; but, after all, he
only compared himself with his contemporaries; he
overestimated his critical faculty extravagantly, but
he was careful to avoid the supreme tests. We must
not look to him for any revision of the secular judg-
ments of Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. He will
quote Isolated lines of Homer and Dante and extol
their beauty; but the passages he selects are usually
bethumbed passages, or moral aphorisms seldom
startling or significant, and when he laments "the
Imperfections of Shakespeare" In comparison with
"the perfection of Homer," we are fain to forgive
the absurdity, though It was a characteristic aberra-
tion of the schoolmaster. As a rule he approaches
the gods on his knees with becoming reverence.

With the same Instinctive shrinking he avoids the


highest function of criticism in his own time ; no new
star ever swims Into his ken; he does not affect the
rapture of discovery. He would never praise Victor
Hugo as Swinburne dared to praise him: so far as
I know he never even discusses Balzac or Blake,
and when he talks of Milton or Goethe he only ven-
tures a cursive commentary on Scherer's well-known

But about the writers of the second or third mag-
nitude he has much to say, and what he has to say
he says on the whole excellently well, so well In-
deed, with such measure, such lightness of touch and
humorous felicity, that one loves to listen to him
and applaud him. It seems unkind to find fault with
so agreeable a guide, who has been at such pains
to cultivate amiable manners. But, after all, as
Matthew Arnold himself knew, "the disinterested
reader will have truth," and one ought not to be
"satisfied with fine writing about the object of one's
study"; it is indeed our "business to learn the real
truth about the Important men and things and books
which Interest the human mind." What, then, is
the truth about Matthew Arnold and his critical

Let us try to take a test case that shall be favor-
able to him, the case of some poet who has been
misrated and misunderstood; let us not take Ver-
lalne, whom he never seems to have noticed, nor
Heine, where his cruel misjudging may be attributed


in part at least to his insufficient knowledge of Ger-
man; but let us talce Keats, Keats who was of the
preceding generation, Keats who died at twenty-six,
whom he should, therefore, one would think, have
been able to see fairly and to classify with precision.
The task was not difficult. Browning finds a magical
word with which to praise him — "Keats, him even !" :
Tennyson, whose want of intelligence Arnold de-
plored, declared that Keats lived "in the very heart
of poetry"; what will Matthew Arnold say of

He starts w^ell by accepting Milton's famous say-
ing that poetry should be "simple, sensuous, impas-
sioned." None of us can wish a better judgment
on Keats than must result from such a measure. But
to our astonishment after borrowing a fine criterion,
Matthew Arnold goes on at once to take exception
to Keats's "sensuousness" : was he "anything more
than sensuous"? he asks. Keats's poetry does not
furnish him with any example of excessive sensuous-
ness, and therefore he takes the Letters to Fanny
Brawne, though Keats is assuredly to be judged by
his poetry and by his poetry alone, and not by love-
letters thrown off in the heat of passionate youthful
ardor. It would be as unfair to judge Keats by
these letters as to judge Goethe by his letters written
to Frau von Stein. But let us follow our guide. He
declares that he sees "no reason whatever" for the
publication of these letters: "they ought never to


have been published" : a fortiori, therefore, they
should not be discussed by a critic who takes his
work seriously. But that would not suit your Purl-
tan: Arnold has discovered, he thinks, a dish that is
rather "high"; he cannot resist the temptation to
taste it, to roll It on his tongue, to savor It to the
full before rejecting It, and thus at one and the same
moment enjoy the sin and the condemnation of It.
No more perfect example of hypocrisy could be de-

But, after all, what has Matthew Arnold found?
Here are the worst passages he can discover in
Keats's letters:

You have absorbed me. ... I have no limit now to
my love. ... I have been astonished that men should die
martyrs for religion — I have shuddered at it. I shudder
no more. I could be martyred for my Religion — Love is
my religion. ... I cannot breathe without you.

Now what on earth is there to take exception to In
this? There Is nothing here which hasn't been said
by Shakespeare and Dante and Goethe; much more
sensuous stuff was written in the Song of Solomon,
consecrated by the admiration of a hundred genera-
tions; a still more sensual because solely physical, ap-
peal was made by Chaucer, whom Matthew Arnold
praises for "health and sanity."

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 14 of 20)