Copyright
Henry H Lancaster.

Essays and reviews online

. (page 36 of 38)
Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 36 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


towers, the old familiar landscapes, the gleaming towers by
the river- side, and the green vineyards combed along the
hills ; and when I woke up, it was at a great hotel at
Cologne, and it was not sunrise yet. Deutz lay opposite,
and over Deutz the dusky sky was reddened. The hills
were veiled in the mist and the grey. The grey river flowed
underneath us ; the steamers were roosting along the quays,
a light keeping watch in the cabins here and there, and its
reflection quivering in the water. As I look, the sky-line
towards the east grows redder and redder. A long troop of
grey horsemen winds down the river road, and passes over
the bridge of boats. You might take them for ghosts, those
grey horsemen, so shadowy do they look ; but you hear the
trample of their hoofs as they pass over the planks. Every
minute the dawn twinkles up into the twilight ; and over
Deutz the heaven blushes brighter. The quays begin to fill
with men : the carts begin to creak and rattle : and wake
the sleeping echoes. Ding, ding, ding, the steamer's bells
begin to ring : the people on board to stir and wake : the
lights may be extinguished, and take their turn of sleep : the
active boats shake themselves, and push out into the river :
the great bridge opens, and gives them passage : the church-
bells of the city begin to clink : the cavalry trumpets blow
from the opposite bank : the sailor is at the wheel, the
porter at his burthen, the soldier at his musket, and the

priest at his prayers And lo ! in a flash of crimson

splendour, with blazing scarlet clouds running before his
chariot, and heralding his majestic approach, God's sun rises
upon the world, and all nature wakens and brightens. O
glorious spectacle of light and life ! beatific symbol of



THACKERAY. 449

Power, Love, Joy, Beauty ! Let us look at thee with humble
wonder, and thankfully acknowledge and adore. What
gracious forethought is it what generous and loving pro-
vision, that deigns to prepare for our eyes and to soothe our
hearts with such a splendid morning festival ! For these
magnificent bounties of Heaven to us, let us be thankful,
even that we can feel thankful (for thanks surely is the
noblest effort, as it is the greatest delight, of the gentle soul) ;
and so, a grace for this feast, let all say who partake of it.
.... See ! the mist clears off Drachenfels, and it looks out
from the distance, and bids us a friendly farewell."

Our second quotation describes Esmond at his
mother's grave one of the most deeply affecting
pieces of writing in the language :

" Esmond came to this spot in one sunny evening of spring,
and saw, amidst a thousand black crosses, casting their
shadows across the grassy mounds, that particular one which
marked his mother's resting-place. Many more of those
poor creatures that lay there had adopted that same name
with which sorrow had re-baptized her, and which fondly
seemed to hint their individual story of love and grief. He
fancied her, in tears and darkness, kneeling at the foot of her
cross, under which her cares were buried. Surely he knelt
down, and said his own prayer there, not in sorrow so much
as in awe (for even his memory had no recollection of her),
and in pity for the pangs which the gentle soul in life had
been made to suffer. To this cross she brought them ; for
this heavenly bridegroom she exchanged the husband who
had wooed her, the traitor who had left her. A thousand
such hillocks lay round about, the gentle daisies springing
out of the grass over them, and each bearing its cross and
requicscal. A nun, veiled in black, was kneeling hard by,
at a sleeping sister's bed-side (so fresh made, that the spring
had scarce had time to spin a coverlid for it) ; beyond the
cemetery walls you had glimpses of life and the world, and
the spires and gables of the city. A bird came down from
a roof opposite, and lit first on a cross, and then on the grass
below it, whence it flew away presently with a leaf in its
mouth : then came a sound of chanting, from the chapel of



450 THACKERAY.

the sisters hard by : others had long since filled the place
which poor Mary Magdalene once had there, were kneeling
at the same stall and hearing the same hymns and prayers
in which her stricken heart had found consolation. Might
she sleep in peace might she sleep in peace ; and we, too
when our struggles and pains are over ! But the earth is
the Lord's as the heaven is ; we are alike his creatures here
and yonder. I took a little flower off the hillock and kissed
it, and went my way like the bird that had just lighted on
the cross by me, back into the world again. Silent re-
ceptacle of death ! tranquil depth of calm, out of reach of
tempest and trouble. I felt as one who had been walking
below the sea, and treading amidst the bones of shipwrecks."

Looking at Mr. Thackeray's writings as a whole, he
would be more truthfully described as a sentimentalist
than as a cynic. Even when the necessities of his
story compel him to draw bad characters, he gives
them as much good as he can. We don't remember
in his novels any utterly unredeemed scoundrel ex-
cept Sir Francis Clavering. Even Lord Steyne has
something like genuine sympathy with Major Pen-
dennis's grief at the illness of his nephew. And if
reproof is the main burden of his discourse, we must
remember that to reprove, not to praise, is the business
of the preacher. Still further, if his reproof appears
sometimes unduly severe, we must remember that
such severity may spring from a belief that better
things are possible. Here lies the secret of Thackeray's
seeming bitterness. His nature was, in the words of
the critic in "Le Temps:" "farieuse d avoir ete
desappointee" He condemns sternly men as they
often are, because he had a high ideal of what they
might be. The feeling of this contrast runs through
all his writings. " He could not have painted Vanity
Fair as he has, unless Eden had been shining brightly
before his eyes." 1 And this contrast could never have

1 Essays by George Brim ley. Second Edition. Cambridge, 1860. A
collection of singularly good critical papers.



THACKERAY. 451

been felt, the glories of Eden could never have been
seen by the mere satirist or by the misanthrope. It
has been often urged against him that he does not
make us think better of our fellow-men. No, truly.
But he does what is far greater than this he makes
us think worse of ourselves. There is no great
necessity that we should think well of other people ;
there is the utmost necessity that we should know
ourselves in our every fault and weakness ; and such
knowledge his writings will supply.

In Mr. Hannay's Memoir, 1 which we have read with
admiration and pleasure, a letter from Thackeray is
quoted, very illustrative of this view of his character :
" I hate Juvenal ; I mean I think him a truculent
brute, and I love Horace better than you do, and rate
Churchill much lower ; and as for Swift, you haven't
made me alter my opinion. I admire, or rather admit,
his power as much as you do ; but I don't admire
that kind of power so much as I did fifteen years ago,
or twenty shall we say. Love is a higher intellectual
exercise than hatred." We think the terrible Dean
had love as well as hate strong within him, and none
the worse in that it was more special than general ;
" I like Tom, Dick, and Harry," he used to say ; "*I
hate the race ;" but nothing can be more character-
istic of Thackeray than this judgment. Love was the
central necessity of his understanding as well as of
his affections ; it was his fulfilling of the law ; and
unlike the Dean, he could love Tom, and also like and
pity as well as rebuke the race.

Mr. Thackeray has not written any history formally
so called. But it is known that he purposed doing so,
and in "Esmond" and the "Lectures" he has given
us much of the real essence of history. The " Satur-

1 " A Brief Memoir of the late Mr. Thackeray." By James Hannay.
Edinburgh, 18C4.



452 THACKERAY.

day Eeview," however, in a recent article, has an-
nounced that this was a mistake ; that history was
not his line. Such a decision is rather startling. In
one or two instances of historical representation,
Mr. Thackeray may have failed. Johnson and
Eichardson do not appear in the " Virginians " with
much effect. But surely in the great majority of
instances, he has been eminently successful. Horace
Walpole's letter in the "Virginians," the fictitious
" Spectator " in " Esmond " are very felicitous literary
imitations. Good-natured trooper Steele comforting
the boy in the lonely country-house ; Addison, serene
and dignified, " with ever so slight a touch of merum
in his voice " occasionally ; Bolingbroke, with a good
deal of merum in his voice, talking reckless Jacob-
itism at the dinner at General Webbe's, are wonderful
portraits. And, though the estimate of Marlborough's
character may be disputed, the power with which that
character is represented cannot be questioned. But
the historical genius displayed in " Esmond " goes
beyond this. We know of no history in which the
intrigues and confusion of parties at the death of
Queen Anne are sketched so firmly as in the third
volume of that work ; in fact, a more thorough his-
torical novel was never written. It is not loaded with
historical learning ; and yet it is most truly, though
or rather because unpretendingly, a complete represen-
tation of the time. It reads like a veritable memoir.
And it will hardly be disputed, that a good historical
novel cannot be written save by one possessed of great
historical powers. What are the qualities necessary
to a historian \ Knowledge, love of truth, insight
into human nature, imagination to make alive before
him the times of which he writes. All these Mr.
Thackeray had. His knowledge was accurate and
minute, indeed, he could not have written save of



THACKERAY. 453

what he knew well ; a love of truth was his main
characteristic ; for insight into human nature he ranks
second to Shakespeare alone ; and while he wanted that
highest creative imagination which makes the poet, he
had precisely that secondary imagination which serves
the historian, which can realise the past and make
the distant near. Had he been alllowed to carry out
his cherished design of recording the reign of Queen
Anne, a great gap in the history of our country would
have been filled up by one of the most remarkable
books in the language. We might have had less than
is usual of the " dignity of history/' of battles and
statutes and treaties ; but we should have had more
of human nature the actors in the drama would have
been brought before us living and moving, their
passions and hidden motives made clear ; the life of
England would have been sketched by a subtle artist ;
the literature of England, during a period which this
generation often talks about, but of which it knows,
we suspect, very little, would have been presented to
us lighted up by appreciative and competent criti-
cism. The Saturday Reviewer gives a reason for Mr.
Thackeray's failure as a historian, which will seem
strange to those who have been accustomed to regard
him as a cynic. He was so carried away by worth,
says this ingenious critic bent on fault-finding, and so
impatient of all moral obliquity, that he could not
value fairly the services which had been rendered by
bad men. And the instance given is that a sense of
what we owe to the Hanoverian succession was not
allowed to temper the severity of the estimate given
of the first two Georges ; an unfortunate instance,
as the critic would have discovered had he read the
following passage in the lecture on George the
Second :

" But for Sir Robert Walpole, we should have had the



454 THACKERAY.

Pretender back again. But for his obstinate love of peace,
we should have had wars, which the nation was not strong
enough nor united enough to endure. But for his resolute
counsels and good-humoured resistance, we might have had
German despots attempting a Hanoverian regimen over us ;
we should have had revolt, commotion, want, and tyrannous
misrule, in place of a quarter of a century of peace, freedom,
and material prosperity, such as the country never enjoyed /
until that corrupter of parliaments, that dissolute, tipsy cynic,
that courageous lover of peace and liberty, that great citizen,
patriot, and statesman governed it."

The truth is, that Mr. Thackeray, while fully
appreciating the blessings of the Hanoverian succes-
sion, knew well that the country did not in the least
degree owe the stability of that succession to the
Hanoverian kings, but, on the contrary, to that great
minister, whose character is sketched, in a powerful
passage, of which the above quotation is a part. In
fact, Mr. Thackeray judged no man harshly. No
attentive student of his works can fail to see that he
understood the duty of " making allowance," not less
with regard to historical characters, than with regard
to characters of his own creation. He does full jus-
tice, for example, to the courage and conduct of
Marlborough, as to whose moral character the opinion
of Colonel Esmond is in curious accordance with the
historical judgment given later to the public by Lord
Macaulay.

These "Lectures on the Georges" were made the
ground of a charge against Mr. Thackeray of disloyalty.
This charge was urged with peculiar offensiveness by
certain journals, which insinuated that the failings of
English kings had been selected as a theme grateful
to the American audiences who first heard the lectures
delivered. Mr. Thackeray felt this charge deeply, and
repelled it in language which we think worthy to be



THACKERAY. 455

remembered. At a dinner given to him in Edinburgh,
in 1857, he said :

" I had thought that in these lectures I had spoken in
terms not of disrespect or unkindness, and in feelings and in
language not un-English, of Her Majesty the Queen ; and
wherever I have had to mention her name, whether it was
upon the banks of the Clyde or upon those of the Mississippi,
whether it was in New England or in Old England, whether
it was in some great hall in London to the artisans of the
suburbs of the metropolis, or to the politer audiences of the
western end wherever I had to mention her name, it was
received with shouts of applause, and with the most hearty
cheers. And why was this ? It was not on account of the
speaker ; it was on account of the truth ; it was because the
English and the Americans the people of New Orleans a
year ago, the people of Aberdeen a week ago all received
and acknowledged with due allegiance the great claims to
honour which that lady has who worthily holds that great
and awful situation which our Queen occupies. It is my
loyalty that is called in question, and it is my loyalty that I
am trying to plead to you. Suppose, for example, in America
in Philadelphia or in New York that I had spoken about
George iv. in terms of praise and affected reverence, do you
believe they would have hailed his name with cheers, or
have heard it with anything like respect ? They would have
laughed in my face if I had so spoken of him. They know
what I know and you know, and what numbers of squeamish
loyalists who affect to cry out against my lectures know,
that that man's life was not a good life that that king was
not such a king as we ought to love, or regard, or honour.
And I believe, for my part, that in speaking the truth, as we
hold it, of a bad sovereign, we are paying no disrespect at
all to a good one. Ear from it. On the contrary, we degrade
our own honour and the Sovereign's by unduly and unjustly
praising him ; and the mere slaverer and flatterer is one who
comes forward, as it were, with flash notes, and pays with
false coin his tribute to Csesar. I don't disguise that I
feel somehow on my trial here for loyalty, for honest English
feeling."

The judgment pronounced by the accomplished



456 THACKERAY.

Scotch judge who presided at this dinner- trial, a man
far removed, both by tastes and position, from any
sympathy with vulgar popularity-hunting, will be
accepted by every candid person as just :

" I don't," said Lord Neaves, " for my part, regret if there
are some painful truths told in these lectures to those who
had before reposed in the pleasing delusion that everything
royal was immaculate. I am not sorry that some of the
false trappings of royalty or of a court life should be stripped
off. We live under a Sovereign whose conduct, both public
and private, is so unexceptionable, that we can afford to look
all the facts connected with it in the face ; and woe be to the
country or to the crown when the voice of truth shall be
stifled as to any such matters, or when the only tongue that
is allowed to be heard is that of flattery."

It was said of Fontenelle that he had as good a
heart as could be made out of brains. Adapting the
observation, we may say of Thackeray that he was as
good a poet as could be made out of brains. The
highest gifts of the poet of course he wanted. His
imagination, to take Kuskin's distinction, was more
penetrative than associative or contemplative. His
mind was too much occupied with realities for per-
sistent ideal work. But manliness and common-sense,
combined with a perfect mastery of language, go a
long way at least to the making of very excellent
verses. More than this, he had the sensibility, the
feeling of time and of numbers essential to versifying ;
and his mind fulfilled the condition required by our
greatest living poet :

" Clear and bright it should be ever,
Flowing like a crystal river."

His verse-making was a sort of pleasaunce a flower-
garden in the midst of spacious policies. It was the
ornamentation of his intellect. His ballads do not
perhaps show poetic feeling more profound than is



THACKERAY. 457

possessed by many men ; they derive for the most
part their charm from the same high qualities as mark
his prose, with the attraction of music and rhyme
superadcled. Writing them seems to have given him
real pleasure. The law of self-imposed restraint, of
making the thought often wait upon the sound, neces-
sary in rhythmical composition, rather than, as in
prose, the sound upon the sense this measuring of
feeling and of expression had plainly a great charm
for his rich and docile genius. His verses give one
the idea of having been a great delight to himself,
like humming a favourite air; there is no trace of
effort, and yet the trick of the verse is perfect. His
rhymes are often as good as Swift's and Hood's. This
feeling of enjoyment, as also the abounding fertility in
strange rhymes, is very marked in the White Squall ;
and hardly less in the ease and gaiety of Peg of
Limavaddy. Take, for instance, the description of
the roadside inn where Peg dispenses liquor :

" Limavaddy inn's

But a humble baithouse,
Where you may procure

Whiskey and potatoes ;
Landlord at the door

Gives a smiling welcome
To the shivering wights

Who to his hotel come.
Landlady within

Sits and knits a stocking,
With a wary foot

Baby's cradle rocking.
To the chimney nook,

Having found admittance,
There I watch a pup

Playing with two kittens ;
(Playing round the fire,

Which of blazing turf is,



458 THACKERAY.

Koaring to the pot

Which bubbles with the murphies)
And the cradled babe

Fond the mother nursed it,
Singing it a song

As she twists the worsted ! "

Peg herself and her laugh

" Such a silver peal !

In the meadows listening,
You who 've heard the bells

Ringing to a christening ;
You who ever heard

Caradori pretty,
Smiling like an angel,

Singing ' Giovinetti ;'
Fancy Peggy's laugh,

Sweet, and clear, and cheerful,
At my pantaloons

With half a pint of beer full !
See her as she moves !

Scarce the ground she touches,
Airy as a fay,

Graceful as a duchess ;
Bare her rounded arm,

Bare her little leg is,
Vestris never show'd

Ankles like to Peggy's ;
Braided is her hair,

Soft her look and modest,
Slim her little waist

Comfortably boddiced."

In a similar light and graceful style are the Cane-
Bottom'd Chair, Piscator and Piscatrix, the Carmen
Lilliense, etc. ; and all the Lyra Hibernica, especially
the rollicking Battle of Limerick, are rich in Irish
absurdity. That compact little epic the Chronicle of
the Drum, the well-known Bouillabaisse, and At the
Church Gate the first literary effort of Mr. Arthur



THACKERAY. 450

Pendermis seem to us in their various styles to rise
into the region of real poetry. The Chronicle of the
Drum is a grand martial composition, and a picture of
the feelings of the French soldiery which strikes on
us at once as certainly true. The Ballads of Pleace-
man X. are unique in literature as startlingly original
as Tarn O'Shanter. Jacob Homnium's Hoss is perhaps
the most amusing ; the Foundling of Shoreditch the
most serious ; but through them all there runs a
current of good sense, good feeling, and quaint fun
which makes them most pleasant reading. They
remind one somehow of John Gilpin indeed there is
often the same playful fancy and delicate pensiveness
in Thackeray as in Cowper. We should like to quote
many of these ; but we give in preference Miss Tickle-
toby's ballad on King Canute, long though it be,
because it is not included in the collected ballads, and
has not, we fear, obtained great popularity by being
incorporated into "Rebecca and Rowena" a render-
ing of poetical justice less generally read than it
should be :

" KING CANUTE.

King Canute was weary-hearted ; he had reign'd for years a score ;
Battling, struggling, pushing, fighting, killing much and robbing more,
And he thought upon his actions, walking by the wild sea-shore.

'Twixt the chancellor and bishop walked the king with steps sedate,
Chamberlains and grooms came after, silver sticks and gold sticks great,
Chaplains, aides-de-camp, and pages, all the officers of state.

Sliding after like his shadow, pausing when he chose to pause ;

If a frown his face contracted, straight the courtiers dropp'd their jaws ;

If to laugh the king was minded, out they burst in loud hee-haws.

But that day a something vex'd him, that was clear to old and young,
Thrice his grace had yawn'd at table, when his favourite gleeman sung,
Once the queen would have consoled him, but he bade her hold her
tongue.

1 Something ails my gracious master,' cried the keeper of the seal,
* Sure, my lord, it is the lampreys served at dinner, or the veal ! '
' Psha !' exclaiin'd the angry monarch, < keeper, 'tis not that I feel



460 THACKERAY.

' 'Tis the heart and not the dinner, fool, that doth my rest impair ;
Can a king be great as I am, prithee, and yet know no care ?
Oh, I 'in sick, and tired, and weary.' Some one cried, 'The king's
arm-chair ! '

Then towards the lackeys turning, quick my lord the keeper nodded,
Straight the king's great chair was brought him, by two footmen

able-bodied,
Languidly he sank into it : it was comfortably wadded.

' Leading on my fierce companions,' cried he, ' over storm and brine,
I have fought and I have conquer'd ! Where was glory like to mine ! '
Loudly all the courtiers echoed, 'Where is glory like to thine V

1 What avail me all my kingdoms ? Weary am I now, and old,
Those fair sons I have begotten, long to see me dead and cold ;
Would I were, and quiet buried, underneath the silent mould !

' remorse, the writhing serpent ! at my bosom tears and bites :
Horrid, horrid things I look on, though I put out all the lights ;
Ghosts of ghastly recollections troop about my bed of nights.

' Cities burning, convents blazing, red with sacrilegious fires ;
Mothers weeping, virgins scream ing, vainly for their slaughter'd sires
'Such a tender conscience,' cries the bishop, every one admires.'

' But for such unpleasant bygones, cease, my gracious lord, to search,
They're forgotten and forgiven by our holy Mother Church ;
Never, never does she leave her benefactors in the lurch.

' Look ! the land is crown'd with minsters, which your Grace's bounty

raised ;

Abbeys filled with holy men, where you and heaven are daily praised ;
You, my lord, to think of dying ] on my conscience, I'm amazed ! '

' Nay, I feel,' replied King Canute, ' that my end is drawing near ;'
' Don't say so,' exclaim'd the courtiers (striving each to squeeze a tear),
' Sure your grace is strong and lusty, and may live this fifty year.'

' Live these fifty years ! ' the bishop roar'd, with actions made to suit,
' Are you mad, my good lord keeper, thus to speak of King Canute !
Men have lived a thousand years, and sure his Majesty will do 't.

' Adam, Enoch, Lamech, Canan, Mahaleel, Methusela,



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 36 of 38)