Henry H Lancaster.

Essays and reviews online

. (page 28 of 38)
Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 28 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

him. He may not be able to suggest the remedy,
but he must be able to point out the fault. Unless
he can do this, he had best be silent. Unexplained
grumbling is but the indulgence of a luxury long ago


described by Charles Lamb : " There is a pleasure
(we sing not to the profane) far beyond the reach of
all the world counts joy a deep, enduring satis-
faction in the depths, where the superficial seek it
not, of discontent. ... To grow bigger every moment
in your own conceit, and the world to lessen ; to
deify yourself at the expense of your species ; to
judge the world, this is the acme and supreme point
of your mystery, these are the true pleasures of
sulkiness." A taste for these pleasures is growing on
Mr. Ruskin ; and, what is worse, he tries to com-
municate the same taste to his readers. Against this
we beg to enter our most decided protest. If a man
will enjoy these pleasures, let him do so with regard
to trifles. He is not entitled to them at the expense
of his country of the whole state of the society in
which he lives. We always come back to the decisive
point Tell us distinctly what is wrong, Mr. Carlyle
or Mr. Euskin, and we will try to mend it. But
when you abuse us as hastening to perdition, and as
throwing away the bounty of God, and can specify
no deeper ground of offence than building bridges
over waterfalls, then we reject you as false teachers
and false censors alike, and return to our common-
place but satisfactory belief in the general happiness
and advancement of the present generation.

But it is not with these objections heartily as we
entertain them that we would close this article. We
must recur to a leading characteristic of Mr. Ruskin's
writings which gives to them their purest beauty and
their deepest truth : we mean the profound religious
feeling which pervades them all. He tells us in the
" Seven Lamps," that he has been blamed for this ;
if so, the blame was most unwise. More, perhaps,
than any other quality of his mind, this seriousness
of thought has made him the great art critic that he


is. For all true art is but a reflex of religion ; as
Cousin has it, " a presentation of moral beauty by
physical." In speaking of the great things of sacred
art, Mr. Ruskin never fails to refer to the greater and
holier realities of which that art is but the feeble copy ;
in depicting the solemnities of nature, he never fails
to lead us to those eternal truths with which certain
aspects of nature are for ever associated. He cannot
look on the flaming wings of the angels of Angelico,
without rising in thought to the heavenly hosts
above ; when he reveals to us the " mountain glory,"
his mind sweeps on to the special holiness of the moun-
tains on which the Lawgiver and the High Priest of
Israel were taken to their God, and the yet more pro-
found sanctity of the mountain on which the divinity
of our Lord was proclaimed from heaven. The greatest
of our sacred writers, not excepting Jeremy Taylor
himself, have written nothing more deeply splendid
than the close of the fourth volume of " Modern
Painters," where we read of the mysteries which were
accomplished on Mount Abarim, and Mount Hor, and
on the Mount of Transfiguration. It is in such high
arguments that Mr. Ruskin's style achieves its greatest
triumphs. His descriptive powers are always won-
derful ; his sarcasm is always powerful ; but when
themes which demand a sustained exaltation of style
inspire him, then he manifests his perfect strength.
At such times we have no pomp of verbiage wasted
on leaves and lichens ; we have the whole force
of the English language, wielded as few men have ever
wielded it before, devoted to subjects far transcending
its utmost powers of utterance. Then Mr. Buskin's
writing throws into the shade the most splendid
declamations of Burke makes even the prose of
Milton appear tame rises into " a sevenfold chorus
of hallelujahs and harping symphonies." We quote


one of such passages ; not, perhaps, the very finest,
but the one best adapted to our limits :

" This, I believe, is the ordinance of the firmament ; and
it seems to me that in the midst of the material nearness of
these heavens God means us to acknowledge His own im-
mediate presence as visiting, judging, and blessing us. ' The
earth shook, the heavens also dropped, at the presence of
God.' ' He doth set His bow in the cloud,' and thus renews,
in the sound of eveiy drooping swathe of rain, His promises
of everlasting love. ' In them hath He set a tabernacle for
the sun ;' whose burning ball, which without the firmament
would be seen but as an intolerable and scorching circle in
the blackness of vacuity, is by that firmament surrounded
with gorgeous service, and tempered by mediatorial minis-
tries ; by the firmament of clouds the golden pavement
is spread for his chariot- wheels at morning ; by the firma-
ment of clouds the temple is built for his presence to fill
with light at noon ; by the firmament of clouds the purple
veil is closed at evening round the sanctuary of his rest;
by the mists of the firmament his implacable light is divided,
and its separated fierceness appeased into the soft blue that
fills the depth of distance with its bloom, and the flush with
which the mountains burn as they drink the overflowing of
the day spring. And in this tabernacling of the unendurable
sun with men, through the shadows of the firmament, God
would seem to set forth the stooping of His own majesty to
men, upon the throne of the firmament. As the Creator of
all the worlds, and the Inhabiter of eternity, we cannot
behold Him ; but, as the Judge of the earth and the Pre-
server of men, those heavens are indeed His dwelling-place.
' Swear not, neither by heaven, for it is God's throne ; nor
by the earth, for it is His footstool.' And all those passings
to and fro of fruitful shower and grateful shade, and all
those visions of silver palaces built about the horizon, and
voices of moaning winds and threatening thunders, and
glories of coloured robe and cloven ray, are but to deepen
in our hearts the acceptance, and distinctness, and dearness
of the simple words, ' Our Father, which art in heaven.' "
" Modern Painters," vol. iv. p. 89.


With the majestic music of these words sounding
in our ears, and the exaltedness of these thoughts
dwelling in our hearts, let us conclude. Now, at the
last, we would willingly forget all fault-finding, and
take leave of Mr. Ruskin with feelings only of ad-
miration and gratitude. The greatest art-critic that
has ever written, he has done more than afford us
pleasure he has opened up to us new worlds of
emotion. Often, as we gaze on the perfection of
landscape, we may fail, even after Mr. Buskin's
teaching, to think of the Maker of it all ; yet it
cannot be but that we are so raised, for the time
at least, above the thoughts and cares of common
life. Great art, he tells us, may be defined as the
"art of dreaming." If so, then the sleep in which
such dreams may come is better than most of our
waking. Mr. Ruskin has shown us what visions
high of beauty, and goodness, and truth, can bless
the sleep of genius. More than this, he will lead
every docile reader to the portals at least of that
happy dreamland, where he can catch a glimpse of
the far-off glory ; where all the poetry of his nature
will be stirred within him ; where he can forget, for
a while, disappointment, and sorrow, and cruel separa-
tion ; where his unrest can be quieted, his vague
longings for the moment satisfied ; and whence he can
return, comforted and strengthened, to the light and
the labour of the day.


SOME years ago general attention was arrested by
a series of stories then appearing in " Black-
wood's Magazine," under the title of "Scenes of
Clerical Life." These tales did not win their way
very rapidly, nor were they ever, perhaps, in the
strict sense of the word, popular. But eventually
their reputation extended beyond the class of ordinary
novel-readers ; and they gained from their admirers
an enthusiastic admiration, more to be relied on than
any mere noisy popularity. From the nature of the
tales this was what might have been expected. They
were almost entirely without incident, and were there-
fore wanting in what is commonly called interest a
want which, in nine cases out of ten, would be fatal
to the success of magazine stories. Worse than this,
they were all melancholy ; and nothing alienates the
casual reader so much as a persistent tone of sadness.
On the other hand, readers who can dispense with
excitement, and who do not turn from the aspect of

1 1. " Scenes of Clerical Life." By George Eliot. 2 vols. Edinburgh,

2. " Adam Bede." 3 vols. Edinburgh, 1859.

3. ' The Mill on the Floss." 3 vols, Edinburgh, 1860.

4. " Silas Marner." 1vol. Edinburgh, 1861.

5. " Romola." 3 vols. London, 1863.

6. "Felix Holt." 3 vols. Edinburgh, 1866. [Reprinted from the
" North British Review," No. 89. September 1866.]


sorrow, were fascinated by a rare beauty of style, a
loftiness of tone beyond common, a reach of thought
and command of passion which challenged comparison
with the masters of literature. So far as popularity
is concerned, " Adam Bede" was a great advance from
the " Scenes of Clerical Life ; " and then came in
succession the books which are at the head of this
article, and which have gained for George Eliot a
place second to none among the living writers of
English fiction. Her reputation grew with each
successive effort; and "Felix Holt" especially has
been received with universal paeans of delight.

Two of our ablest living critics, Mr. Arnold and
Mr. Palgrave, take frequent occasion to lament the
want in English literature of anything like sound
criticism. Mr. Arnold is quite plaintive on this
theme : " Almost the last thing for which one would
come to English literature is just that very thing which
now Europe most desires criticism." Mr. Palgrave
puts it more gently when he laments " that deficiency
in independent taste which is, it may be feared, in
some ways characteristic of Englishmen. In picture-
buying, at any rate, precedent and fashion are too
often dominant." Precedent and fashion dominate
just as much in judging of novels as in judging of
pictures. It was long before the " independent taste "
of our critics recognised the merits which put George
Eliot's writings on a totally different platform from
the trash the present enormous supply of which is a
disgrace to our literature ; and now, when the fashion
has set in, praise is lavished on her later works, in
terms which would require modification if applied to
the greatest masters of fiction. With much of this
praise we heartily concur ; from some of it we are
constrained to dissent. For example, when a critic
declares it certain that if people were to take to heart


the lessons which " Felix Holt " contains, " the next
generation would rise to a moral excellence far above
that of to-day, and leave many meannesses and
miseries under their feet," we feel that a position is
claimed for George Eliot as the teacher of a morality
purer and more exalted than that which generally
regulates the lives of mankind, or which animates the
pages of ordinary writers. We greatly doubt whether
she is entitled to this position ; and on this point
alone to say nothing of matters of more strictly
literary aspect it may be worth while shortly to
examine George Eliot's works.

Dr. Johnson defines a novel as " a smooth tale,
generally of love." Definitions, like the syllogism,
are often unequal to the subtlety of nature ; certainly
Johnson's definition of the novel is altogether unequal
to the subtlety and variety of modern fiction. The
favourite novels now-a-days are far from being
" smooth tales," and the love of which they tell is too
often a distorted image of what he meant by the
word, To George Eliot's writings the definition is
peculiarly inadequate. The deep tide of passion in
her tales, breaking against harsh circumstance, cannot
flow smoothly ; and of all her novels, perhaps "The
Mill on the Floss" alone is, in the ordinary accepta-
tion of the word, a love-story. In fact, story-telling
at all is not her forte. Her great characteristic is her
knowledge of human nature, and the grasp of thought
with which she seizes and brings before us its most
hidden secrets. Scott said of Kichardson that " in his
survey of the heart he left neither head, bay, nor inlet
behind him until he had traced its soundings, and laid
it down in his chart with all its minute sinuosities,
its depths, and its shallows." More than even this
may be said with truth of George Eliot. She has
sounded, with no less accuracy than Richardson, the


depths and the shallows of every little bay ; and she
has ventured boldly on distant seas, of which the
storms and the treacherous calms were to him alike

Considering George Eliot as a writer generally,
without having regard to her special vocation as a
writer of novels, criticism cheerfully recognises many
rare excellencies. First among these of common con-
sent, must be placed her style. It would be flattery
to place her on a level with Thackeray. But now that
we have lost Thackeray, she is in this point above all
others. Trollope, indeed, has a merit of his own ;
but his easy naturalness is altogether on a lower level.
George Eliot's style is rich in beauty and power. It
is a splendid vehicle. We can often mark its effect in
raising the thought to a dignity greater than its own.
Her wealth of allusion is considerable, and it is
indicated with becoming reserve, not ostentatiously
obtruded, as is the fashion with most of our present
novelists; to borrow a graceful simile from Mr.
Hannay, it is like " violets hidden in the green of her
prose." Above all, her style is not the result of art
only : it has that indescribable stamp which marks it
as the result of feeling and thought. The thought
may not be always deep, the feeling may not be
always right, but both are uniformly original and
sincere. The following passage from one of her early
writings exhibits some of her characteristic excel-
lencies, and shows also the wide sympathies and large
charity of the writer :

" Yes, the movement was good, though it had that mixture
of folly and evil which often makes what is good an offence
to feeble and fastidious minds, who want human actions and
characters riddled through the sieve of their own ideas, before
they can accord their sympathy or admiration. Such minds,
I dare say, would have found Mr. Tryan's character very


much in need of that riddling process. The blessed work of
helping the world forward happily does not wait to be done
by perfect men, and I should imagine that neither Luther
nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the
modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but
what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does
nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes of God's
making are quite different : they have their natural heritage
of love and conscience which they drew in with their
mother's milk ; they know one or two of those deep
spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling
with their own sins and their own sorrows ; they have
earned faith and strength so far as they have done genuine
work : but the rest is dry barren theory, blank prejudice,
vague hearsay. Their insight is blended with mere opinion ;
their sympathy is perhaps confined in narrow conduits of
doctrine, instead of flowing forth with the freedom of a
stream that blesses every weed in its course ; obstinacy or
self-assertion will often interfuse itself with their grandest
impulses ; and their very deeds of self-sacrifice are some-
times only the rebound of a passionate egoism. So it was
with Mr. Tryan : and any one looking at him with the
bird's-eye glance of a critic might perhaps say that he made
the mistake of identifying Christianity with a too narrow
doctrinal system ; that he saw God's work too exclusively in
antagonism to the world, the flesh, arid the devil ; that his
intellectual culture was too limited and so on ; making Mr.
Tryan the text for a wise discourse on the characteristics of
the Evangelical school in his day.

" But I am not poised at that lofty height. I am on the
level and in the press with him, as he struggles his way
along the stony road, through the crowd of unloving fellow-
men. He is stumbling, perhaps ; his heart now beats fast
with dread, now heavily with anguish ; his eyes are some-
times dim with tears, which he makes haste to dash away ;
he pushes manfully on, with fluctuating faith and courage,
with a sensitive failing body ; at last he falls, the struggle is
ended, and the crowd closes over the space he has left.

" ' One of the Evangelical clergy, a disciple of Venn,' says
the critic from his bird's-eye station. ' Not a remarkable


specimen ; the anatomy and habits of his species have been
determined long ago.'

"Yet surely, surely the only true knowledge of our
fellow- man is that which enables us to feel with him
which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beat-
ing under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion.
Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the
essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in
all forms of human thought and work, the life and death
struggles of separate human beings."

As a contrast with this, take a passage, very grace-
ful in description and true in feeling, from what we
think the purest and most beautiful of all her tales,
" Mr. Gilfil's Love-story : "

" They reached the flower-garden, and turned mechanically
in at the gate that opened, through a high thick hedge, on
an expanse of brilliant colour, which, after the green shades
they had passed through, startled the eye like flames. The
effect was assisted by an undulation of the ground, which
gradually descended from the en trance- gate, and then rose
again towards the opposite end, crowned by an orangery.
The flowers were glowing with their evening splendours :
verbenas and heliotropes were sending up their finest
incense. It seemed a gala where all was happiness and
brilliancy, and misery could find no sympathy. This was
the effect it had on Caterina. As she wound among the beds
of gold and blue and pink, where the flowers seemed to be
looking at her with wondering elf-like eyes, knowing
nothing of sorrow, the feeling of isolation in her wretched-
ness overcame her, and the tears, which had been before
trickling slowly down her pale cheeks, now gushed forth
accompanied with sobs. And yet there was a loving human
being close beside her, whose heart was aching for hers, who
was possessed by the feeling that she was miserable, and
that he was helpless to soothe her. But she was too much
irritated by the idea that his wishes were different from hers,
that he rather regretted the folly of her hopes than the pro-
bability of their disappointment, to take any comfort in his
sympathy. Caterina, like the rest of us, turned away from


sympathy which she suspected to be mingled with criticism,
as the child turns away from the sweetmeat in which it sus-
pects imperceptible medicine."

And again, in quite a different style :

" It was one of their happy mornings. They trotted along
and sat down together, with no thought that life would ever
change much for them : they would only get bigger and not
go to school, and it would always be like the holidays ; they
would always live together and be fond of each other. And
the mill with its booming the great chestnut-tree under
which they played at houses their own little river, the
Hippie, where the banks seemed like home, and Tom was
always seeing the water-rats, while Maggie gathered the
purple plumy tops of the reeds, which she forgot and
dropped afterwards above all, the great Floss, along which
they wandered with a sense of travel, to see the rushing
spring-tide, the awful Eagre, come up like a hungry monster,
or to see the Great Ash which had once wailed and groaned
like a man these things would always be just the same to
them. Tom thought people were at a disadvantage who
lived on any other spot of the globe ; and Maggie, when
she read about Christiana passing 'the river over which
there is no bridge/ always saw the Floss between the green
pastures by the Great Ash.

" Life did change for Tom and Maggie ; and yet they
were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of
these first years would always make part of their lives. We
could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no
childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same
flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather
with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the
grass the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows
the same redbreasts that we used to call ' God's birds/
because they did no harm to the precious crops. What
novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is
known, and loved because it is known ?

"The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the
young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and
the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed


speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet what grove of
tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad petalled
blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres
within me as this home-scene ? These familiar flowers,
these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful
brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort
of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows,
such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagina-
tion, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextri-
cable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left
behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-
bladed grass to-day, might be no more than the faint per-
ception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and
the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us, and
transform our perception into love."

It is not too much to say, that from few novelists
in the English language could passages be selected
giving evidence of such varied power. On the other
hand, George Eliot is often forgetful of the beauty of
simplicity. Her richness of language sometimes makes
her style ornate and over-loaded; her eagerness of
thought leads her into complexity and confusion of
expression. It is impossible to avoid the comparison
with Thackeray, for she resembles him closely in the
device of interweaving reflection and comment with
the story ; and it is in such passages that both writers
reach their greatest wonders of style. At her best
she falls short of his exquisite simplicity, which
sprang from the delicate reserve of his nature, and
carried with it a suggestive power over the heart of
the reader, reaching far beyond the actual written
word ; of his complete appropriateness, never too
much or too little ; of his finished beauty of language,
like crystal, at once clear and splendid. And in some
of her favourite fine passages, that is, in her worst,
there is a gaudiness of diction and a vagueness of
thought sometimes descending to mere rodomontade.


We could quote many passages in support of this
criticism. We select three, all from the first volume
of " Felix Holt: "

"The sensitive little minister knew instinctively that
words which would cost him efforts as painful as the
obedient footsteps of a wounded bleeding hound that wills a
foreseen throe, would fall on this man as the pressure of
tender fingers falls on a brazen glove."

" For there is seldom any wrong-doing which does not
carry along with it some downfall of blindly-climbing hopes,
some hard entail of suffering, some quickly-satiated desire
that survives, with the life in death of old paralytic vice, to
see itself cursed by its woful progeny some tragic mark of
kinship in the one brief life to the far- stretching life that
went before, and to the life that is to come after, such as
has raised the pity and terror of men ever since they began
to discern between will and destiny."

" The poets have told us of a dolorous enchanted forest
in the under world. The thorn-bushes there, and the thick-

Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 28 of 38)