Alexandre Dumas is a writer, and his life is a topic, of which his devotees never weary. Indeed, one lifetime is not long enough wherein to tire of them. The long days and years of Hilpa and Shalum, in Addison--the antediluvian age, when a picnic lasted for half a century and a courtship for two hundred years, might have sufficed for an exhaustive study of Dumas. No such study have I to offer, in the brief seasons of our perishable days. I own that I have not read, and do not, in the circumstances, expect to read, all of Dumas, nor even the greater part of his thousand volumes. We only dip a cup in that sparkling spring, and drink, and go on,--we cannot hope to exhaust the fountain, nor to carry away with us the well itself. It is but a word of gratitude and delight that we can say to the heroic and indomitable master, only an ave of friendship that we can call across the bourne to the shade of the Porthos of fiction. That his works (his best works) should be even still more widely circulated than they are; that the young should read them, and learn frankness, kindness, generosity--should esteem the tender heart, and the gay, invincible wit; that the old should read them again, and find forgetfulness of trouble, and taste the anodyne of dreams, that is what we desire.
Dumas said of himself ("Memoires," v. 13) that when he was young he tried several times to read forbidden books--books that are sold sous le manteau. But he never got farther than the tenth page, in the
"scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type;"
he never made his way so far as
"the woful sixteenth print."
"I had, thank God, a natural sentiment of delicacy; and thus, out of my six hundred volumes (in 1852) there are not four which the most scrupulous mother may not give to her daughter." Much later, in 1864, when the Censure threatened one of his plays, he wrote to the Emperor: "Of my twelve hundred volumes there is not one which a girl in our most modest quarter, the Faubourg Saint-Germain, may not be allowed to read." The mothers of the Faubourg, and mothers in general, may not take Dumas exactly at his word. There is a passage, for example, in the story of Miladi ("Les Trois Mousquetaires") which a parent or guardian may well think undesirable reading for youth. But compare it with the original passage in the "Memoires" of D'Artagnan! It has passed through a medium, as Dumas himself declared, of natural delicacy and good taste. His enormous popularity, the widest in the world of letters, owes absolutely nothing to prurience or curiosity. The air which he breathes is a healthy air, is the open air; and that by his own choice, for he had every temptation to seek another kind of vogue, and every opportunity.
Two anecdotes are told of Dumas' books, one by M. Edmond About, the other by his own son, which show, in brief space, why this novelist is so beloved, and why he deserves our affection and esteem. M. Villaud, a railway engineer who had lived much in Italy, Russia, and Spain, was the person whose enthusiasm finally secured a statue for Dumas. He felt so much gratitude to the unknown friend of lonely nights in long exiles, that he could not be happy till his gratitude found a permanent expression. On returning to France he went to consult M. Victor Borie, who told him this tale about George Sand. M. Borie chanced to visit the famous novelist just before her death, and found Dumas' novel, "Les Quarante Cinq" (one of the cycle about the Valois kings) lying on her table. He expressed his wonder that she was reading it for the first time.
"For the first time!--why, this is the fifth or sixth time I have read 'Les Quarante Cinq,' and the others. When I am ill, anxious, melancholy, tired, discouraged, nothing helps me against moral or physical troubles like a book of Dumas." Again, M. About says that M. Sarcey was in the same class at school with a little Spanish boy. The child was homesick; he could not eat, he could not sleep; he was almost in a decline.
"You want to see your mother?" said young Sarcey.
"No: she is dead."
"Your father, then?"
" No: he used to beat me."
"Your brothers and sisters?"
"I have none."
"Then why are you so eager to be back in Spain?"
"To finish a book I began in the holidays."
"And what was its name?"
"'Los Tres Mosqueteros'!"
He was homesick for "The Three Musketeers," and they cured him easily.
That is what Dumas does. He gives courage and life to old age, he charms away the half-conscious nostalgie, the Heimweh, of childhood. We are all homesick, in the dark days and black towns, for the land of blue skies and brave adventures in forests, and in lonely inns, on the battle-field, in the prison, on the desert isle. And then Dumas comes, and, like Argive Helen, in Homer, he casts a drug into the wine, the drug nepenthe, "that puts all evil out of mind." Does any one suppose that when George Sand was old and tired, and near her death, she would have found this anodyne, and this stimulant, in the novels of M. Tolstoi, M. Dostoiefsky, M. Zola, or any of the "scientific" observers whom we are actually requested to hail as the masters of a new art, the art of the future? Would they make her laugh, as Chicot does? make her forget, as Porthos, Athos, and Aramis do? take her away from the heavy, familiar time, as the enchanter Dumas takes us? No; let it be enough for these new authors to be industrious, keen, accurate, precieux, pitiful, charitable, veracious; but give us high spirits now and then, a light heart, a sharp sword, a fair wench, a good horse, or even that old Gascon rouncy of D'Artagnan's. Like the good Lord James Douglas, we had liefer hear the lark sing over moor and down, with Chicot, than listen to the starved-mouse squeak in the bouge of Therese Raquin, with M. Zola. Not that there is not a place and an hour for him, and others like him; but they are not, if you please, to have the whole world to themselves, and all the time, and all the praise; they are not to turn the world into a dissecting-room, time into tedium, and the laurels of Scott and Dumas into crowns of nettles.
There is no complete life of Alexandre Dumas. The age has not produced the intellectual athlete who can gird himself up for that labour. One of the worst books that ever was written, if it can be said to be written, is, I think, the English attempt at a biography of Dumas. Style, grammar, taste, feeling, are all bad. The author does not so much write a life as draw up an indictment. The spirit of his work is grudging, sneering, contemptuous, and pitifully peddling. The great charge is that Dumas was a humbug, that he was not the author of his own books, that his books were written by "collaborators"--above all, by M. Maquet. There is no doubt that Dumas had a regular system of collaboration, which he never concealed. But whereas Dumas could turn out books that live, whoever his assistants were, could any of his assistants write books that live, without Dumas? One might as well call any barrister in good practice a thief and an impostor because he has juniors to "devil" for him, as make charges of this kind against Dumas. He once asked his son to help him; the younger Alexandre declined. "It is worth a thousand a year, and you have only to make objections," the sire urged; but the son was not to be tempted. Some excellent novelists of to-day would be much better if they employed a friend to make objections. But, as a rule, the collaborator did much more. Dumas' method, apparently, was first to talk the subject over with his aide-de-camp. This is an excellent practice, as ideas are knocked out, like sparks (an elderly illustration!), by the contact of minds. Then the young man probably made researches, put a rough sketch on paper, and supplied Dumas, as it were, with his "brief." Then Dumas took the "brief" and wrote the novel. He gave it life, he gave it the spark (l'etincelle); and the story lived and moved.
It is true that he "took his own where he found it," like Molere and that he took a good deal. In the gallery of an old country-house, on a wet day, I came once on the "Memoires" of D'Artagnan, where they had lain since the family bought them in Queen Anne's time. There were our old friends the Musketeers, and there were many of their adventures, told at great length and breadth. But how much more vivacious they are in Dumas! M. About repeats a story of Dumas and his ways of work. He met the great man at Marseilles, where, indeed, Alexandre chanced to be "on with the new love" before being completely "off with the old." Dumas picked up M. About, literally lifted him in his embrace, and carried him off to see a play which he had written in three days. The play was a success; the supper was prolonged till three in the morning; M. About was almost asleep as he walked home, but Dumas was as fresh as if he had just got out of bed. "Go to sleep, old man," he said: "I, who am only fifty-five, have three feuilletons to write, which must be posted to-morrow. If I have time I shall knock up a little piece for Montigny--the idea is running in my head." So next morning M. About saw the three feuilletons made up for the post, and another packet addressed to M. Montigny: it was the play L'Invitation e la Valse, a chef-d'oeuvre! Well, the material had been prepared for Dumas. M. About saw one of his novels at Marseilles in the chrysalis. It was a stout copy-book full of paper, composed by a practised hand, on the master's design. Dumas copied out each little leaf on a big leaf of paper, en y semant l'esprit e pleines mains. This was his method. As a rule, in collaboration, one man does the work while the other looks on. Is it likely that Dumas looked on? That was not the manner of Dumas. "Mirecourt and others," M. About says, "have wept crocodile tears for the collaborators, the victims of his glory and his talent. But it is difficult to lament over the survivors (1884). The master neither took their money--for they are rich, nor their fame--for they are celebrated, nor their merit--for they had and still have plenty. And they never bewailed their fate: the reverse! The proudest congratulate themselves on having been at so good a school; and M. Auguste Maquet, the chief of them, speaks with real reverence and affection of his great friend." And M. About writes "as one who had taken the master red-handed, and in the act of collaboration." Dumas has a curious note on collaboration in his "Souvenirs Dramatiques." Of the two men at work together, "one is always the dupe, and HE is the man of talent."
There is no biography of Dumas, but the small change of a biography exists in abundance. There are the many volumes of his "Memoires," there are all the tomes he wrote on his travels and adventures in Africa, Spain, Italy, Russia; the book he wrote on his beasts; the romance of Ange Pitou, partly autobiographical; and there are plenty of little studies by people who knew him. As to his "Memoires," as to all he wrote about himself, of course his imagination entered into the narrative. Like Scott, when he had a good story he liked to dress it up with a cocked hat and a sword. Did he perform all those astonishing and innumerable feats of strength, skill, courage, address, in revolutions, in voyages, in love, in war, in cookery? The narrative need not be taken "at the foot of the letter"; great as was his force and his courage, his fancy was greater still. There is no room for a biography of him here. His descent was noble on one side, with or without the bend sinister, which he said he would never have disclaimed, had it been his, but which he did not happen to inherit. On the other side he MAY have descended from kings; but, as in the case of "The Fair Cuban," he must have added, "African, unfortunately." Did his father perform these mythical feats of strength? did he lift up a horse between his legs while clutching a rafter with his hands? did he throw his regiment before him over a wall, as Guy Heavistone threw the mare which refused the leap ("Memoires," i. 122)? No doubt Dumas believed what he heard about this ancestor--in whom, perhaps, one may see a hint of the giant Porthos. In the Revolution and in the wars his father won the name of Monsieur de l'Humanite, because he made a bonfire of a guillotine; and of Horatius Cocles, because he held a pass as bravely as the Roman "in the brave days of old."
This was a father to be proud of; and pluck, tenderness, generosity, strength, remained the favourite virtues of Dumas. These he preached and practised. They say he was generous before he was just; it is to be feared this was true, but he gave even more freely than he received. A regiment of seedy people sponged on him always; he could not listen to a tale of misery but he gave what he had, and sometimes left himself short of a dinner. He could not even turn a dog out of doors. At his Abbotsford, "Monte Cristo," the gates were open to everybody but bailiffs. His dog asked other dogs to come and stay: twelve came, making thirteen in all. The old butler wanted to turn them adrift, and Dumas consented, and repented.
"Michel," he said, "there are some expenses which a man's social position and the character which he has had the ill-luck to receive from heaven force upon him. I don't believe these dogs ruin me. Let them bide! But, in the interests of their own good luck, see they are not thirteen, an unfortunate number!"
"Monsieur, I'll drive one of them away."
"No, no, Michel; let a fourteenth come. These dogs cost me some three pounds a month," said Dumas. "A dinner to five or six friends would cost thrice as much, and, when they went home, they would say my wine was good, but certainly that my books were bad." In this fashion Dumas fared royally "to the dogs," and his Abbotsford ruined him as certainly as that other unhappy palace ruined Sir Walter. He, too, had his miscellaneous kennel; he, too, gave while he had anything to give, and, when he had nothing else, gave the work of his pen. Dumas tells how his big dog, Mouton once flew at him and bit one of his hands, while the other held the throat of the brute. "Luckily my hand, though small, is powerful; what it once holds it holds long--money excepted." He could not "haud a guid grip o' the gear." Neither Scott nor Dumas could shut his ears to a prayer or his pockets to a beggar, or his doors on whoever knocked at them.
"I might at least have asked him to dinner," Scott was heard murmuring, when some insufferable bore at last left Abbotsford, after wasting his time and nearly wearing out his patience. Neither man PREACHED socialism; both practised it on the Aristotelian principle: the goods of friends are common, and men are our friends.
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The death of Dumas' father, while the son was a child, left Madame Dumas in great poverty at Villers Cotterets. Dumas' education was sadly to seek. Like most children destined to be bookish, he taught himself to read very young: in Buffon, the Bible, and books of mythology. He knew all about Jupiter--like David Copperfield's Tom Jones, "a child's Jupiter, an innocent creature"--all about every god, goddess, fawn, dryad, nymph--and he never forgot this useful information. Dear Lempriere, thou art superseded; but how much more delightful thou art than the fastidious Smith or the learned Preller! Dumas had one volume of the "Arabian Nights," with Aladdin's lamp therein, the sacred lamp which he was to keep burning with a flame so brilliant and so steady. It is pleasant to know that, in his boyhood, this great romancer loved Virgil. "Little as is my Latin, I have ever adored Virgil: his tenderness for exiles, his melancholy vision of death, his foreboding of an unknown God, have always moved me; the melody of his verses charmed me most, and they lull me still between asleep and awake." School days did not last long: Madame Dumas got a little post--a licence to sell tobacco--and at fifteen Dumas entered a notary's office, like his great Scotch forerunner. He was ignorant of his vocation for the stage--Racine and Corneille fatigued him prodigiously--till he saw Hamlet: Hamlet diluted by Ducis. He had never heard of Shakespeare, but here was something he could appreciate. Here was "a profound impression, full of inexplicable emotion, vague desires, fleeting lights, that, so far, lit up only a chaos."
Oddly enough, his earliest literary essay was the translation of Burger's "Lenore." Here, again, he encounters Scott; but Scott translated the ballad, and Dumas failed. Les mortes vont vite! the same refrain woke poetry in both the Frenchman and the Scotchman.
"Ha! ha! the Dead can ride with speed:
Dost fear to ride with me?"
So Dumas' literary career began with a defeat, but it was always a beginning. He had just failed with "Lenore," when Leuven asked him to collaborate in a play. He was utterly ignorant, he says; he had not succeeded in gallant efforts to read through "Gil Blas" and "Don Quixote." "To my shame," he writes, "the man has not been more fortunate with those masterpieces than the boy." He had not yet heard of Scott, Cooper, Goethe; he had heard of Shakespeare only as a barbarian. Other plays the boy wrote--failures, of course--and then Dumas poached his way to Paris, shooting partridges on the road, and paying the hotel expenses by his success in the chase. He was introduced to the great Talma: what a moment for Talma, had he known it! He saw the theatres. He went home, but returned to Paris, drew a small prize in a lottery, and sat next a gentleman at the play, a gentleman who read the rarest of Elzevirs, "Le Pastissier Francais," and gave him a little lecture on Elzevirs in general. Soon this gentleman began to hiss the piece, and was turned out. He was Charles Nodier, and one of the anonymous authors of the play he was hissing! I own that this amusing chapter lacks verisimilitude. It reads as if Dumas had chanced to "get up" the subject of Elzevirs, and had fashioned his new knowledge into a little story. He could make a story out of anything--he "turned all to favour and to prettiness." Could I translate the whole passage, and print it here, it would be longer than this article; but, ah, how much more entertaining! For whatever Dumas did he did with such life, spirit, wit, he told it with such vivacity, that his whole career is one long romance of the highest quality. Lassagne told him he must read--must read Goethe, Scott, Cooper, Froissart, Joinville, Brantome. He read them to some purpose. He entered the service of the Duc d'Orleans as a clerk, for he wrote a clear hand, and, happily, wrote at astonishing speed. He is said to have written a short play in a cottage where he went to rest for an hour or two after shooting all the morning. The practice in a notary's office stood him, as it stood Scott, in good stead. When a dog bit his hand he managed to write a volume without using his thumb. I have tried it, but forbear--in mercy to the printers. He performed wild feats of rapid caligraphy when a clerk under the Duc d'Orleans, and he wrote his plays in one "hand," his novels in another. The "hand" used in his dramas he acquired when, in days of poverty, he used to write in bed. To this habit he also attributed the brutalite of his earlier pieces, but there seems to be no good reason why a man should write like a brute because it is in bed that he writes.
In those days of small things he fought his first duel, and made a study of Fear and Courage. His earliest impulse was to rush at danger; if he had to wait, he felt his courage oozing out at the tips of his fingers, like Bob Acres, but in the moment of peril he was himself again. In dreams he was a coward, because, as he argues, the natural man IS a poltroon, and conscience, honour, all the spiritual and commanding part of our nature, goes to sleep in dreams. The animal terror asserts itself unchecked. It is a theory not without exceptions. In dreams one has plenty of conscience (at least that is my experience), though it usually takes the form of remorse. And in dreams one often affronts dangers which, in waking hours, one might probably avoid if one could.
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Dumas' first play, an unimportant vaudeville, was acted in 1825. His first novels were also published then; he took part of the risk, and only four copies were sold. He afterward used the ideas in more mature works, as Mr. Sheridan Le Fanu employed three or four times (with perfect candour and fairness) the most curious incident in "Uncle Silas." Like Mr. Arthur Pendennis, Dumas at this time wrote poetry "up to" pictures and illustrations. It is easy, but seldom lucrative work. He translated a play of Schiller's into French verse, chiefly to gain command of that vehicle, for his heart was fixed on dramatic success. Then came the visit of Kean and other English actors to Paris. He saw the true Hamlet, and, for the first time on any stage, "the play of real passions." Emulation woke in him: a casual work of art led him to the story of Christina of Sweden, he wrote his play Christine (afterward reconstructed); he read it to Baron Taylor, who applauded; the Comedie Francaise accepted it, but a series of intrigues disappointed him, after all. His energy at this moment was extraordinary, for he was very poor, his mother had a stroke of paralysis, his bureau was always bullying and interfering with him. But nothing could snub this "force of nature," and he immediately produced his Henri Trois, the first romantic drama of France. This had an instant and noisy success, and the first night of the play he spent at the theatre, and at the bedside of his unconscious mother. The poor lady could not even understand whence the flowers came that he laid on her couch, the flowers thrown to the young man--yesterday unknown, and to-day the most famous of contemporary names. All this tale of triumph, checkered by enmities and diversified by duels, Dumas tells with the vigour and wit of his novels. He is his own hero, and loses nothing in the process; but the other characters--Taylor, Nodier, the Duc d'Orleans, the spiteful press-men, the crabbed old officials--all live like the best of the persons in his tales. They call Dumas vain: he had reason to be vain, and no candid or generous reader will be shocked by his pleasant, frank, and artless enjoyment of himself and of his adventures. Oddly enough, they are small-minded and small-hearted people who are most shocked by what they call "vanity" in the great. Dumas' delight in himself and his doings is only the flower of his vigorous existence, and in his "Memoires," at least, it is as happy and encouraging as his laugh, or the laugh of Porthos; it is a kind of radiance, in which others, too, may bask and enjoy themselves. And yet it is resented by tiny scribblers, frozen in their own chill self-conceit.
There is nothing incredible (if modern researches are accurate) in the stories he tells of his own success in Hypnotism, as it is called now, Mesmerism or Magnetism as it was called then. Who was likely to possess these powers, if not this good-humoured natural force? "I believe that, by aid of magnetism, a bad man might do much mischief. I doubt whether, by help of magnetism, a good man can do the slightest good," he says, probably with perfect justice. His dramatic success fired Victor Hugo, and very pleasant it is to read Dumas' warm-hearted praise of that great poet. Dumas had no jealousy--no more than Scott. As he believed in no success without talent, so he disbelieved in genius which wins no success. "Je ne crois pas au talent ignore, au genie inconnu, moi." Genius he saluted wherever he met it, but was incredulous about invisible and inaudible genius; and I own to sharing his scepticism. People who complain of Dumas' vanity may be requested to observe that he seems just as "vain" of Hugo's successes, or of Scribe's, as of his own, and just as much delighted by them.
He was now struck, as he walked on the boulevard one day, by the first idea of Antony--an idea which, to be fair, seems rather absurd than tragic, to some tastes. "A lover, caught with a married woman, kills her to save her character, and dies on the scaffold." Here is indeed a part to tear a cat in!
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The performances of M. Dumas during the Revolution of 1830, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of Alexandre the Great? But they were not literary excellences which he then displayed, and we may leave this king-maker to hover, "like an eagle, above the storms of anarchy."
Even to sketch his later biography is beyond our province. In 1830 he had forty years to run, and he filled the cup of the Hours to the brim with activity and adventure. His career was one of unparalleled production, punctuated by revolutions, voyages, exiles, and other intervals of repose. The tales he tells of his prowess in 1830, and with Garibaldi, seem credible to me, and are borne out, so far, by the narrative of M. Maxime Ducamp, who met him at Naples, in the Garibaldian camp. Like Mr. Jingle, in "Pickwick," he "banged the field-piece, twanged the lyre," and was potting at the foes of the republic with a double-barrelled gun, when he was not composing plays, romances, memoirs, criticisms. He has told the tale of his adventures with the Comedie Francaise, where the actors laughed at his Antony, and where Madame Mars and he quarrelled and made it up again. His plays often won an extravagant success; his novels--his great novels, that is--made all Europe his friend. He gained large sums of money, which flowed out of his fingers, though it is said by some that his Abbotsford, Monte Cristo, was no more a palace than the villa which a retired tradesman builds to shelter his old age. But the money disappeared as fast as if Monte Cristo had really been palatial, and worthy of the fantasy of a Nero. He got into debt, fled to Belgium, returned, founded the Mousquetaire, a literary paper of the strangest and most shiftless kind. In "Alexandre Dumas e la Maison d'Or," M. Philibert Audebrand tells the tale of this Micawber of newspapers. Everything went into it, good or bad, and the name of Dumas was expected to make all current coin. For Dumas, unluckily, was as prodigal of his name as of his gold, and no reputation could bear the drafts he made on his celebrity. His son says, in the preface to Le Fils Naturel: "Tragedy, dramas, history, romance, comedy, travel, you cast all of them in the furnace and the mould of your brain, and you peopled the world of fiction with new creations. The newspaper, the book, the theatre, burst asunder, too narrow for your puissant shoulders; you fed France, Europe, America with your works; you made the wealth of publishers, translators, plagiarists; printers and copyists toiled after you in vain. In the fever of production you did not always try and prove the metal which you employed, and sometimes you tossed into the furnace whatever came to your hand. The fire made the selection: what was your own is bronze, what was not yours vanished in smoke."
The simile is noble and worthy of the Cyclopean craftsman, Dumas. His great works endured; the plays which renewed the youth of the French stage, the novels which Thackeray loved to praise, these remain, and we trust they may always remain, to the delight of mankind and for the sorrow of prigs.
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So much has been written of Dumas' novels that criticism can hardly hope to say more that is both new and true about them. It is acknowledged that, in such a character as Henri III., Dumas made history live, as magically as Scott revived the past in his Louis XI., or Balfour of Burley. It is admitted that Dumas' good tales are told with a vigour and life which rejoice the heart; that his narrative is never dull, never stands still, but moves with a freedom of adventure which perhaps has no parallel. He may fall short of the humour, the kindly wisdom, the genial greatness of Sir Walter at his best, and he has not that supernatural touch, that tragic grandeur, which Scott inherits from Homer and from Shakespeare. In another Homeric quality, [Greek text], as Homer himself calls it, in the "delight of battle" and the spirit of the fray, Scott and Dumas are alike masters. Their fights and the fights in the Icelandic sagas are the best that have ever been drawn by mortal man. When swords are aloft, in siege or on the greensward, or in the midnight chamber where an ambush is laid, Scott and Dumas are indeed themselves. The steel rings, the bucklers clash, the parry and lunge pass and answer too swift for the sight. If Dumas has not, as he certainly has not, the noble philosophy and kindly knowledge of the heart which are Scott's, he is far more swift, more witty, more diverting. He is not prolix, his style is not involved, his dialogue is as rapid and keen as an assault at arms. His favourite virtues and graces, we repeat it, are loyalty, friendship, gaiety, generosity, courage, beauty, and strength. He is himself the friend of the big, stupid, excellent Porthos; of Athos, the noble and melancholy swordsman of sorrow; of D'Artagnan, the indomitable, the trusty, the inexhaustible in resource; but his heart is never on the side of the shifty Aramis, with all his beauty, dexterity, bravery, and brilliance. The brave Bussy, and the chivalrous, the doomed La Mole, are more dear to him; and if he embellishes their characters, giving them charms and virtues that never were theirs, history loses nothing, and romance and we are the gainers. In all he does, at his best, as in the "Chevalier d'Harmenthal," he has movement, kindness, courage, and gaiety. His philosophy of life is that old philosophy of the sagas and of Homer. Let us enjoy the movement of the fray, the faces of fair women, the taste of good wine; let us welcome life like a mistress, let us welcome death like a friend, and with a jest--if death comes with honour.
Dumas is no pessimist. "Heaven has made but one drama for man--the world," he writes, "and during these three thousand years mankind has been hissing it." It is certain that, if a moral censorship could have prevented it, this great drama of mortal passions would never have been licensed, at all, never performed. But Dumas, for one, will not hiss it, but applauds with all his might--a charmed spectator, a fortunate actor in the eternal piece, where all the men and women are only players. You hear his manly laughter, you hear his mighty hands approving, you see the tears he sheds when he had "slain Porthos"--great tears like those of Pantagruel.
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His may not be the best, nor the ultimate philosophy, but it IS a philosophy, and one of which we may some day feel the want. I read the stilted criticisms, the pedantic carpings of some modern men who cannot write their own language, and I gather that Dumas is out of date. There is a new philosophy of doubts and delicacies, of dallyings and refinements, of half-hearted lookers-on, desiring and fearing some new order of the world. Dumas does not dally nor doubt: he takes his side, he rushes into the smoke, he strikes his foe; but there is never an unkind word on his lip, nor a grudging thought in his heart.
It may be said that Dumas is not a master of words and phrases, that he is not a raffine of expression, nor a jeweller of style. When I read the maunderings, the stilted and staggering sentences, the hesitating phrases, the far-sought and dear-bought and worthless word-juggles; the sham scientific verbiage, the native pedantries of many modern so-called "stylists," I rejoice that Dumas was not one of these. He told a plain tale, in the language suited to a plain tale, with abundance of wit and gaiety, as in the reflections of his Chicot, as in all his dialogues. But he did not gnaw the end of his pen in search of some word that nobody had ever used in this or that connection before. The right word came to him, the simple straightforward phrase. Epithet-hunting may be a pretty sport, and the bag of the epithet-hunter may contain some agreeable epigrams and rare specimens of style; but a plain tale of adventure, of love and war, needs none of this industry, and is even spoiled by inopportune diligence. Speed, directness, lucidity are the characteristics of Dumas' style, and they are exactly the characteristics which his novels required. Scott often failed, his most loyal admirers may admit, in these essentials; but it is rarely that Dumas fails, when he is himself and at his best.
In spite of his heedless education, Dumas had true critical qualities, and most admired the best things. We have already seen how he writes about Shakespeare, Virgil, Goethe, Scott. But it may be less familiarly known that this burly man-of-all-work, ignorant as he was of Greek, had a true and keen appreciation of Homer. Dumas declares that he only thrice criticised his contemporaries in an unfavourable sense, and as one wishful to find fault. The victims were Casimir Delavigne, Scribe, and Ponsard. On each occasion Dumas declares that, after reflecting, he saw that he was moved by a little personal pique, not by a disinterested love of art. He makes his confession with a rare nobility of candour; and yet his review of Ponsard is worthy of him. M. Ponsard, who, like Dumas, was no scholar, wrote a play styled Ulysse, and borrowed from the Odyssey. Dumas follows Ponsard, Odyssey in hand, and while he proves that the dramatist failed to understand Homer, proves that he himself was, in essentials, a capable Homeric critic. Dumas understands that far-off heroic age. He lives in its life and sympathises with its temper. Homer and he are congenial; across the great gulf of time they exchange smiles and a salute.
"Oh! ancient Homer, dear and good and noble, I am minded now and again to leave all and translate thee--I, who have never a word of Greek--so empty and so dismal are the versions men make of thee, in verse or in prose."
How Dumas came to divine Homer, as it were, through a language he knew not, who shall say? He DID divine him by a natural sympathy of excellence, and his chapters on the "Ulysse" of Ponsard are worth a wilderness of notes by learned and most un-Homeric men. For, indeed, who can be less like the heroic minstrel than the academic philologist?
This universality deserves note. The Homeric student who takes up a volume of Dumas at random finds that he is not only Homeric naturally, but that he really knows his Homer. What did he nor know? His rapidity in reading must have been as remarkable as his pace with the pen. As M. Blaze de Bury says: "Instinct, experience, memory were all his; he sees at a glance, he compares in a flash, he understands without conscious effort, he forgets nothing that he has read." The past and present are photographed imperishably on his brain, he knows the manners of all ages and all countries, the names of all the arms that men have used, all the garments they have worn, all the dishes they have tasted, all the terms of all professions, from swordsmanship to coach-building. Other authors have to wait, and hunt for facts; nothing stops Dumas: he knows and remembers everything. Hence his rapidity, his facility, his positive delight in labour: hence it came that he might be heard, like Dickens, laughing while he worked.
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This is rather a eulogy than a criticism of Dumas. His faults are on the surface, visible to all men. He was not only rapid, he was hasty, he was inconsistent; his need of money as well as his love of work made him put his hand to dozens of perishable things. A beginner, entering the forest of Dumas' books, may fail to see the trees for the wood. He may be counselled to select first the cycle of d'Artagnan--the "Musketeers," "Twenty Years After," and the "Vicomte de Bragelonne." Mr. Stevenson's delightful essay on the last may have sent many readers to it; I confess to preferring the youth of the "Musketeers" to their old age. Then there is the cycle of the Valois, whereof the "Dame de Monsereau" is the best--perhaps the best thing Dumas ever wrote. The "Tulipe Noire" is a novel girls may read, as Thackeray said, with confidence. The "Chevalier d'Harmenthal" is nearly (not quite) as good as "Quentin Durward." "Monte Cristo" has the best beginning--and loses itself in the sands. The novels on the Revolution are not among the most alluring: the famed device "L. P. D." (lilia pedibus destrue) has the bad luck to suggest "London Parcels Delivery." That is an accident, but the Revolution is in itself too terrible and pitiful, and too near us (on both sides!) for fiction.
On Dumas' faults it has been no pleasure to dwell. In a recent work I find the Jesuit Le Moyne quoted, saying about Charles V.: "What need that future ages should be made acquainted so religious an Emperor was not always chaste!" The same reticence allures one in regard to so delightful an author as Dumas. He who had enriched so many died poor; he who had told of conquering France, died during the Terrible Year. But he could forgive, could appreciate, the valour of an enemy. Of the Scotch at Waterloo he writes: "It was not enough to kill them: we had to push them down." Dead, they still stood "shoulder to shoulder." In the same generous temper an English cavalry officer wrote home, after Waterloo, that he would gladly have given the rest of his life to have served, on that day, in our infantry or in the French cavalry. These are the spirits that warm the heart, that make us all friends; and to the great, the brave, the generous Dumas we cry, across the years and across the tomb, our Ave atque vale!
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