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Charles Kingsley

When I was very young, a distinguished Review was still younger. I remember reading one of the earliest numbers, being then myself a boy of ten, and coming on a review of a novel. Never, as it seemed to me, or seems to my memory, was a poor novel more heavily handled: and yet I felt that the book must be a book to read on the very earliest opportunity. It was "Westward Ho!" the most famous, and perhaps the best novel, of Charles Kingsley. Often one has read it since, and it is an example of those large, rich, well-fed romances, at which you can cut and come again, as it were, laying it down, and taking it up on occasion, with the certainty of being excited, amused--and preached at.

Lately I have re-read "Westward Ho!" and some of Kingsley's other books, "Hypatia," "Hereward the Wake," and the poems, over again. The old pleasure in them is not gone indeed, but it is modified. One must be a boy to think Kingsley a humourist. At the age of twelve or ten you take the comic passages which he conscientiously provides, without being vexed or offended; you take them merely in the way of business. Better things are coming: struggles with the Inquisition, storms at sea, duels, the Armada, wanderings in the Lotus land of the tropical west; and for the sake of all this a boy puts up good-naturedly with Kingsley's humour. Perhaps he even grins over Amyas "burying alternately his face in the pasty and the pasty in his face," or he tries to feel diverted by the Elizabethan waggeries of Frank. But there is no fun in them--they are mechanical; they are worse than the humours of Scott's Sir Percy Shafto, which are not fine.

The same sense of everything not being quite so excellent as one remembered it haunts one in "Hereward the Wake, the Last of the English." Kingsley calls him "the Last of the English," but he is really the first of the literary Vikings. In the essay on the Sagas here I have tried to show, very imperfectly, what the Norsemen were actually like. They caught Kingsley's fancy, and his "Hereward," though born on English soil, is really Norse--not English. But Kingsley did not write about the Vikings, nor about his Elizabethan heroes in "Westward Ho!" in a perfectly simple, straightforward way. He was always thinking of our own times and referring to them. That is why even the rather ruffianly Hereward is so great an enemy of saints and monks. That is why, in "Hypatia" (which opens so well), we have those prodigiously dull, stupid, pedantic, and conceited reflections of Raphael Ben Ezra. That is why, in all Kingsley's novels, he is perpetually exciting himself in defence of marriage and the family life, as if any monkish ideas about the blessedness of bachelorhood were ever likely to drive the great Anglo-Saxon race into convents and monasteries. That is the very last thing we have to be afraid of; but Kingsley was afraid of it, and was eternally attacking everything Popish and monkish.

Boys and young people, then, can read "Westward Ho!" and "Hypatia," and "Hereward the Wake," with far more pleasure than their elders. They hurry on with the adventures, and do not stop to ask what the moralisings mean. They forgive the humour of Kingsley because it is well meant. They get, in short, the real good of this really great and noble and manly and blundering genius. They take pleasure in his love of strong men, gallant fights, desperate encounters with human foes, with raging seas, with pestilence, or in haunted forests. For in all that is good of his talent--in his courage, his frank speech, his love of sport, his clear eyes, his devotion to field and wood, river, moor, sea, and storms--Kingsley is a boy. He has the brave, rather hasty, and not over well-informed enthusiasm of sixteen, for persons and for causes. He saw an opponent (it might be Father Newman): his heart lusted for a fight; he called his opponent names, he threw his cap into the ring, he took his coat off, he fought, he got a terrible scientific drubbing. It was like a sixth-form boy matching himself against the champion. And then he bore no malice. He took his defeat bravely. Nay, are we not left with a confused feeling that he was not far in the wrong, though he had so much the worse of the fight?

Such was Kingsley: a man with a boy's heart; a hater of cruelty and injustice, and also with a brave, indomitable belief that his own country and his own cause were generally in the right, whatever the quarrel. He loved England like a mistress, and hated her enemies, Spain and the Pope, though even in them he saw the good. He is for ever scolding the Spanish for their cruelties to the Indians, but he defends our doings to the Irish, which (at that time) were neither more nor less oppressive than the Spanish performances in America. "Go it, our side!" you always hear this good Kingsley crying; and one's heart goes out to him for it, in an age when everybody often proves his own country to be in the wrong.

Simple, brave, resolute, manly, a little given to "robustiousness," Kingsley transfigured all these qualities by possessing the soul and the heart of a poet. He was not a very great poet, indeed, but a true poet--one of the very small band who are cut off, by a gulf that can never be passed, from mere writers of verse, however clever, educated, melodious, ingenious, amiable, and refined. He had the real spark of fire, the true note; though the spark might seldom break into flame, and the note was not always clear. Never let us confuse true poets with writers of verse, still less with writers of "poetic prose." Kingsley wrote a great deal of that- perhaps too much: his descriptions of scenes are not always as good as in Hereward's ride round the Fens, or when the tall, Spanish galleon staggers from the revenge of man to the vengeance of God, to her doom through the mist, to her rest in the sea. Perhaps only a poet could have written that prose; it is certain no writer of "poetic prose" could have written Kingsley's poems.

His songs are his best things; they really are songs, not merely lyric poems. They have the merit of being truly popular, whether they are romantic, like "The Sands o' Dee," which actually reproduces the best qualities of the old ballad; or whether they are pathetic, like the "Doll's Song," in "Water Babies"; or whether they attack an abuse, as in the song of "The Merry Brown Hares"; or whether they soar higher, as in "Deep, deep Love, within thine own abyss abiding"; or whether they are mere noble nonsense, as in "Lorraine Loree":--


"She mastered young Vindictive; oh, the gallant lass was she,
And kept him straight and won the race, as near as near could be;
But he killed her at the brook against a pollard willow tree;
Oh, he killed her at the brook, the brute, for all the world to see,
And no one but the baby cried for poor Lorraine Loree."


The truth about Charles Kingsley seems to be that he rather made a brave and cheery noise in this night-battle of modern life, than that he directed any movement of forces. He kept cheering, as it were, and waving his sword with a contagious enthusiasm. Being a poet, and a man both of heart and of sentiment, he was equally attached to the best things of the old world and to the best of the new world, as far as one can forecast what it is to be. He loved the stately homes of England, the ancient graduated order of society, the sports of the past, the military triumphs, the patriotic glories. But he was also on the side of the poor: as "Parson Lot" he attempted to be a Christian Socialist.

Now, the Socialists are the people who want to take everything; the Christians are the persons who do not want to give more than they find convenient. Kingsley himself was ready to give, and did give, his time, his labour, his health, and probably his money, to the poor. But he was by no means minded that they should swallow up the old England with church and castle, manor-house and tower, wealth, beauty, learning, refinement. The man who wrote "Alton Locke," the story of the starved tailor-poet, was the man who nearly wept when he heard a fox bark, and reflected that the days of fox-hunting were numbered. He had a poet's politics, Colonel Newcome's politics. He was for England, for the poor, for the rich, for the storied houses of the chivalrous past, for the cottage, for the hall; and was dead against the ideas of Manchester, and of Mr. John Bright. "My father," he says in a letter, "would have put his hand to a spade or an axe with any man, and so could I pretty well, too, when I was in my prime; and my eldest son is now working with his own hands at farming, previous to emigrating to South America, where he will do the drudgery of his own cattle-pens and sheepfolds; and if I were twenty-four and unmarried I would go out there too, and work like an Englishman, and live by the sweat of my brow."

This was the right side of his love of the Vikings; it was thus THEY lived, when not at war--thus that every gentleman who has youth and health should work, winning new worlds for his class, in place of this miserable, over-crowded, brawling England. This, I think, was, or should have been, the real lesson and message of Kingsley for the generations to come. Like Scott the scion of an old knightly line, he had that drop of wild blood which drives men from town into the air and the desert, wherever there are savage lands to conquer, beasts to hunt, and a hardy life to be lived. But he was the son of a clergyman, and a clergyman himself. The spirit that should have gone into action went into talking, preaching, writing--all sources of great pleasure to thousands of people, and so not wasted. Yet these were not the natural outlets of Kingsley's life: he should have been a soldier, or an explorer; at least, we may believe that he would have preferred such fortune. He did his best, the best he knew, and it is all on the side of manliness, courage, kindness. Perhaps he tried too many things--science, history, fairy tales, religious and political discussions, romance, poetry. Poetry was what he did best, romance next; his science and his history are entertaining, but without authority.

This, when one reads it again, seems a cold, unfriendly estimate of a man so ardent and so genuine, a writer so vivacious and courageous as Kingsley. Even the elderly reviewer bears to him, and to his brother Henry, a debt he owes to few of their generation. The truth is we should READ Kingsley; we must not criticise him. We must accept him and be glad of him, as we accept a windy, sunny autumn day--beautiful and blusterous--to be enjoyed and struggled with. If once we stop and reflect, and hesitate, he seems to preach too much, and with a confidence which his knowledge of the world and of history does not justify. To be at one with Kingsley we must be boys again, and that momentary change cannot but be good for us. Soon enough--too soon--we shall drop back on manhood, and on all the difficulties and dragons that Kingsley drove away by a blast on his chivalrous and cheery horn.


Andrew Lang

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