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To Alexandre Dumas

Sir,--There are moments when the wheels of life, even of such a life as yours,
run slow, and when mistrust and doubt overshadow even the most intrepid
disposition. In such a moment, towards the ending of your days, you said to
your son, M. Alexandre Dumas, 'I seem to see myself set on a pedestal which
trembles as if it were founded on the sands.' These sands, your uncounted
volumes, are all of gold, and make a foundation more solid than the rock. As
well might the singer of Odysseus, or the authors of the 'Arabian Nights', or
the first inventors of the stories of Boccaccio, believe that their works were
perishable (their names, indeed, have perished), as the creator of 'Les Trois
Mousquetaires' alarm himself with the thought that the world could ever forget
Alexandre Dumas.

Than yours there has been no greater nor more kindly and beneficent force in
modern letters. To Scott, indeed, you owed the first impulse of your genius;
but, once set in motion, what miracles could it not accomplish? Our dear
Porthos was overcome, at last, by a superhuman burden; but your imaginative
strength never found a task too great for it. What an extraordinary vigour,
what health, what an overflow of force was yours! It is good, in a day of
small and laborious ingenuities, to breathe the free air of your books, and
dwell in the company of Dumas's men --so gallant, so frank, so indomitable,
such swordsmen, and such trenchermen. Like M. de Rochefort in 'Vingt Ans
Apre's,' like that prisoner of the Bastille, your genius 'n'est que d'un
parti, c'est du parti du grand air.'


There seems to radiate from you a still persistent energy and enjoyment; in
that current of strength not only your ~characters live, frolic, kindly, and
sane, but even your very collaborators were animated by the virtue which went
out of you. How else can we explain it, the dreary charge which feeble and
envious tongues have brought against you, in England and at home? They say you
employed in your novels and dramas that vicarious aid which, in the slang of
the studio, the 'sculptor's ghost' is fabled to afford.

Well, let it be so; these ghosts, when uninspired by you, were faint and
impotent as 'the strengthless tribes of the dead' in Homer's Hades, before
Odysseus had poured forth the blood that gave them a momentary valour. It was
from you and your inexhaustible vitality that these collaborating spectres
drew what life they possessed; and when they parted from you they shuddered
back into their nothingness. Where are the plays, where the romances which
Maquet and the rest wrote in their own strength? They are forgotten with last
year's snows; they have passed into the wide waste-paper basket of the world.
You say of D'Artagnan, when severed from his three friends--from Porthos,
Athos, and Aramis--'he felt that he could do nothing, save on the condition
that each of these companions yielded to him, if one may so speak, a share of
that electric fluid which was his gift from heaven.'

No man of letters ever had so great a measure of that gift as you; none gave
of it more freely to all who came--to the chance associate of the hour, as to
the characters, all so burly and full-blooded, who flocked from your brain.
Thus it was that you failed when you approached the supernatural. Your ghosts
had too much flesh and blood, more than the living persons of feebler fancies.
A writer so fertile, so rapid, so masterly in the ease with which he worked,
could not escape the reproaches of barren envy. Because you overflowed with
wit, you could not be 'serious;' Because you created with a word, you were
said to scamp your work; because you were never dull, never pedantic,
incapable of greed, you were to be censured as desultory, inaccurate, and
prodigal.

A generation suffering from mental and physical anaemia--a generation devoted
to the 'chiselled phrase,' to accumulated 'documents,' to microscopic porings
over human baseness, to minute and disgustful records of what in humanity is
least human--may readily bring these unregarded and railing accusations. Like
one of the great and good-humoured Giants of Rabelais, you may hear the
murmurs from afar, and smile with disdain. To you, who can amuse the world--to
you who offer it the fresh air of the highway, the battle-field, and the sea--
the world must always return, escaping gladly from the boudoirs and the
bouges, from the surgeries and hospitals, and dead rooms, of M. Daudet and
M. Zola and of the wearisome De Goncourt.

With all your frankness, and with that queer morality of the Camp which, if it
swallows a camel now and again, never strains at a gnat, how healthy and
wholesome, and even pure, are your romances! You never gloat over sin, nor
dabble with an ugly curiosity in the corruptions of sense. The passions in
your tales are honourable and brave, the motives are clearly human. Honour,
Love, Friendship make the threefold cord, the clue your knights and dames
follow through how delightful a labyrinth of adventures! Your greatest books,
I take the liberty to maintain, are the Cycle of the Valois ('La Reine Margot,
'La Dame de Montsoreau,' 'Les Quarante-cinq'), and the Cycle of Louis Treize
and Louis Quatorze ('Les Trois Mousquetaires,' 'Vingt Ans Apre's,' 'Le Vicomte
de Bragelonne'); and, beside these two trilogies--a lonely monument, like the
sphinx hard by the three pyramids--'Monte Cristo.'

In these romances how easy it would have been for you to burn incense to that
great goddess, Lubricity, whom our critic says your people worship. You had
Branto'me, you had Tallemant, you had Re'tif, and a dozen others, to furnish
materials for scenes of voluptuousness and of blood that would have outdone
even the present naturalistes. From these alcoves of 'Les Dames Galantes,'
and from the torture chambers (M. Zola would not have spared us one starting
sinew of brave La Mole on the rack) you turned, as Scott would have turned,
without a thought of their profitable literary uses. You had other metal to
work on: you gave us that superstitious and tragical true love of La Mole's,
that devotion--how tender and how pure!--of Bussy for the Dame de Montsoreau.
You gave us the valour of D'Artagnan, the strength of Porthos, the melancholy
nobility of Athos: Honour, Chivalry, and Friendship. I declare your characters
are real people to me and old friends. I cannot bear to read the end of
'Bragelonne,' and to part with them for ever. 'Suppose Perthos, Athos, and
Aramis should enter with a noiseless swagger, curling their moustaches.' How
we would welcome them, forgiving D'Artagnan even his hateful fourberie in
the case of Milady. The brilliance of your dialogue has never been approached:
there is wit everywhere; repartees glitter and ring like the flash and clink
of small-swords. Then what duels are yours! and what inimitable battle-pieces!
I know four good fights of one against a multitude, in literature. These are
the Death of Gretir the Strong, the Death of Gunnar of Lithend, the Death of
Hereward the Wake, the Death of Bussy d'Amboise. We can compare the strokes of
the heroic fighting-times with those described in later days; and, upon my
word, I do not know that the short sword of Gretir, or the bill of Skarphedin,
or the bow of Gunnar was better wielded than the rapier of your Bussy or the
sword and shield of Kingsley's Hereward.

They say your fencing is unhistorical; no doubt it is so, and you knew it. La
Mole could not have lunged on Coconnas 'after deceiving circle;' for the parry
was not invented except by your immortal Chicot, a genius in advance of his
time. Even so Hamlet and Laertes would have fought with shields and axes, not
with small swords. But what matters this pedantry? In your works we hear the
Homeric Muse again,, rejoicing in the clash of steel; and even, at times, your
very phrases are unconsciously Homeric.

Look at these men of murder, on the Eve of St. Bartholomew, who flee in terror
from the Queen's chamber, and 'find the door too narrow for their flight:' the
very words were anticipated in a line of the 'Odyssey' concerning the massacre
of the Wooers. And the picture of Catherine de Medicis, prowling 'like a wolf
among the bodies and the blood,' in a passage of the Louvre--the picture is
taken unwittingly from the 'Iliad.' There was in you that reserve of primitive
force, that epic grandeur and simplicity of diction. This is the force that
animates 'Monte Cristo,' the earlier chapters, the prison, and the escape. In
later volumes of that romance, methinks, you stoop your wing. Of your dramas I
have little room, and less skill, to speak. 'Antony,' they tell me, was 'the
greatest literary event of its time,' was a restoration of the stage. 'While
Victor Hugo needs the cast-off clothes of history, the wardrobe and costume,
the sepulchre of Charlemagne, the ghost of Barbarossa, the coffins of Lucretia
Borgia, Alexandre Dumas requires no more than a room in an inn, where people
meet in riding cloaks, to move the soul with the last degree of terror and of
pity.'

The reproach of being amusing has somewhat dimmed your fame--for a moment. The
shadow of this tyranny will soon be overpast; and when ' La Cure'e' and
'Pot-Bouille' are more forgotten than 'Le Grand Cyrus,' men and women--and,
above all, boys--will laugh and weep over the page of Alexandre Dumas. Like
Scott himself, you take us captive in our childhood. I remember a very idle
little boy who was busy with the 'Three Musketeers' when he should have been
occupied with 'Wilkins's Latin Prose.' 'Twenty years after' (alas and more) he
is still constant to that gallant company; and, at this very moment, is
breathlessly wondering whether Grimand will steal M. de Beaufort out of the
Cardinal's prison.


Andrew Lang