I don't know how those two little books got in there. They are Henley's "Song of the Sword" and "Book of Verses." They ought to be over yonder in the rather limited Poetry Section. Perhaps it is that I like his work so, whether it be prose or verse, and so have put them ready to my hand. He was a remarkable man, a man who was very much greater than his work, great as some of his work was. I have seldom known a personality more magnetic and stimulating. You left his presence, as a battery leaves a generating station, charged up and full. He made you feel what a lot of work there was to be done, and how glorious it was to be able to do it, and how needful to get started upon it that very hour. With the frame and the vitality of a giant he was cruelly bereft of all outlet for his strength, and so distilled it off in hot words, in warm sympathy, in strong prejudices, in all manner of human and stimulating emotions. Much of the time and energy which might have built an imperishable name for himself was spent in encouraging others; but it was not waste, for he left his broad thumb-mark upon all that passed beneath it. A dozen second-hand Henleys are fortifying our literature to-day.
Alas that we have so little of his very best! for that very best was the finest of our time. Few poets ever wrote sixteen consecutive lines more noble and more strong than those which begin with the well-known quatrain--
"Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from Pole to Pole, I thank whatever Gods there be For my unconquerable soul."It is grand literature, and it is grand pluck too; for it came from a man who, through no fault of his own, had been pruned, and pruned again, like an ill-grown shrub, by the surgeon's knife. When he said--
"In the fell clutch of Circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud, Beneath the bludgeonings of Chance My head is bloody but unbowed."It was not what Lady Byron called "the mimic woe" of the poet, but it was rather the grand defiance of the Indian warrior at the stake, whose proud soul can hold in hand his quivering body.
There were two quite distinct veins of poetry in Henley, each the very extreme from the other. The one was heroic, gigantic, running to large sweeping images and thundering words. Such are the "Song of the Sword" and much more that he has written, like the wild singing of some Northern scald. The other, and to my mind both the more characteristic and the finer side of his work, is delicate, precise, finely etched, with extraordinarily vivid little pictures drawn in carefully phrased and balanced English. Such are the "Hospital Verses," while the "London Voluntaries" stand midway between the two styles. What! you have not read the "Hospital Verses!" Then get the "Book of Verses" and read them without delay. You will surely find something there which, for good or ill, is unique. You can name--or at least I can name--nothing to compare it with. Goldsmith and Crabbe have written of indoor themes; but their monotonous, if majestic metre, wearies the modern reader. But this is so varied, so flexible, so dramatic. It stands by itself. Confound the weekly journals and all the other lightning conductors which caused such a man to pass away, and to leave a total output of about five booklets behind him!
However, all this is an absolute digression, for the books had no business in this shelf at all. This corner is meant for chronicles of various sorts. Here are three in a line, which carry you over a splendid stretch of French (which usually means European) history, each, as luck would have it, beginning just about the time when the other leaves off. The first is Froissart, the second de Monstrelet, and the third de Comines. When you have read the three you have the best contemporary account first hand of considerably more than a century--a fair slice out of the total written record of the human race.
Froissart is always splendid. If you desire to avoid the mediaeval French, which only a specialist can read with pleasure, you can get Lord Berners' almost equally mediaeval, but very charming English, or you can turn to a modern translation, such as this one of Johnes. A single page of Lord Berners is delightful; but it is a strain, I think, to read bulky volumes in an archaic style. Personally, I prefer the modern, and even with that you have shown some patience before you have reached the end of that big second tome.
I wonder whether, at the time, the old Hainault Canon had any idea of what he was doing--whether it ever flashed across his mind that the day might come when his book would be the one great authority, not only about the times in which he lived, but about the whole institution of chivalry? I fear that it is far more likely that his whole object was to gain some mundane advantage from the various barons and knights whose names and deeds be recounts. He has left it on record, for example, that when he visited the Court of England he took with him a handsomely-bound copy of his work; and, doubtless, if one could follow the good Canon one would find his journeys littered with similar copies which were probably expensive gifts to the recipient, for what return would a knightly soul make for a book which enshrined his own valour?
But without looking too curiously into his motives, it must be admitted that the work could not have been done more thoroughly. There is something of Herodotus in the Canon's cheery, chatty, garrulous, take-it-or-leave-it manner. But he has the advantage of the old Greek in accuracy. Considering that he belonged to the same age which gravely accepted the travellers' tales of Sir John Maundeville, it is, I think, remarkable how careful and accurate the chronicler is. Take, for example, his description of Scotland and the Scotch. Some would give the credit to Jean-le-Bel, but that is another matter. Scotch descriptions are a subject over which a fourteenth-century Hainaulter might fairly be allowed a little scope for his imagination. Yet we can see that the account must on the whole have been very correct. The Galloway nags, the girdle-cakes, the bagpipes--every little detail rings true. Jean-le-Bel was actually present in a Border campaign, and from him Froissart got his material; but he has never attempted to embroider it, and its accuracy, where we can to some extent test it, must predispose us to accept his accounts where they are beyond our confirmation.
But the most interesting portion of old Froissart's work is that which deals with the knights and the knight-errants of his time, their deeds, their habits, their methods of talking. It is true that he lived himself just a little after the true heyday of chivalry; but he was quite early enough to have met many of the men who had been looked upon as the flower of knighthood of the time. His book was read too, and commented on by these very men (as many of them as could read), and so we may take it that it was no fancy portrait, but a correct picture of these soldiers which is to be found in it. The accounts are always consistent. If you collate the remarks and speeches of the knights (as I have had occasion to do) you will find a remarkable uniformity running through them. We may believe then that this really does represent the kind of men who fought at Crecy and at Poictiers, in the age when both the French and the Scottish kings were prisoners in London, and England reached a pitch of military glory which has perhaps never been equalled in her history.
In one respect these knights differ from anything which we have had presented to us in our historical romances. To turn to the supreme romancer, you will find that Scott's mediaeval knights were usually muscular athletes in the prime of life: Bois-Guilbert, Front-de-Boeuf, Richard, Ivanhoe, Count Robert--they all were such. But occasionally the most famous of Froissart's knights were old, crippled and blinded. Chandos, the best lance of his day, must have been over seventy when he lost his life through being charged upon the side on which he had already lost an eye. He was well on to that age when he rode out from the English army and slew the Spanish champion, big Marten Ferrara, upon the morning of Navaretta. Youth and strength were very useful, no doubt, especially where heavy armour had to be carried, but once on the horse's back the gallant steed supplied the muscles. In an English hunting-field many a doddering old man, when he is once firmly seated in his familiar saddle, can give points to the youngsters at the game. So it was among the knights, and those who had outlived all else could still carry to the wars their wiliness, their experience with arms, and, above all, their cool and undaunted courage.
Beneath his varnish of chivalry, it cannot be gainsayed that the knight was often a bloody and ferocious barbarian. There was little quarter in his wars, save when a ransom might be claimed. But with all his savagery, he was a light-hearted creature, like a formidable boy playing a dreadful game. He was true also to his own curious code, and, so far as his own class went, his feelings were genial and sympathetic, even in warfare. There was no personal feeling or bitterness as there might be now in a war between Frenchmen and Germans. On the contrary, the opponents were very softspoken and polite to each other. "Is there any small vow of which I may relieve you?" "Would you desire to attempt some small deed of arms upon me?" And in the midst of a fight they would stop for a breather, and converse amicably the while, with many compliments upon each other's prowess. When Seaton the Scotsman had exchanged as many blows as he wished with a company of French knights, he said, "Thank you, gentlemen, thank you!" and galloped away. An English knight made a vow, "for his own advancement and the exaltation of his lady," that he would ride into the hostile city of Paris, and touch with his lance the inner barrier. The whole story is most characteristic of the times. As he galloped up, the French knights around the barrier, seeing that he was under vow, made no attack upon him, and called out to him that he had carried himself well. As he returned, however, there stood an unmannerly butcher with a pole-axe upon the side-walk, who struck him as he passed, and killed him. Here ends the chronicler; but I have not the least doubt that the butcher had a very evil time at the hands of the French knights, who would not stand by and see one of their own order, even if he were an enemy, meet so plebeian an end.
De Comines, as a chronicler, is less quaint and more conventional than Froissart, but the writer of romance can dig plenty of stones out of that quarry for the use of his own little building. Of course Quentin Durward has come bodily out of the pages of De Comines. The whole history of Louis XI. and his relations with Charles the Bold, the strange life at Plessis-le-Tours, the plebeian courtiers, the barber and the hangman, the astrologers, the alternations of savage cruelty and of slavish superstition--it is all set forth here. One would imagine that such a monarch was unique, that such a mixture of strange qualities and monstrous crimes could never be matched, and yet like causes will always produce like results. Read Walewski's "Life of Ivan the Terrible," and you will find that more than a century later Russia produced a monarch even more diabolical, but working exactly on the same lines as Louis, even down to small details. The same cruelty, the same superstition, the same astrologers, the same low-born associates, the same residence outside the influence of the great cities--a parallel could hardly be more complete. If you have not supped too full of horrors when you have finished Ivan, then pass on to the same author's account of Peter the Great. What a land! What a succession of monarchs! Blood and snow and iron! Both Ivan and Peter killed their own sons. And there is a hideous mockery of religion running through it all which gives it a grotesque horror of its own. We have had our Henry the Eighth, but our very worst would have been a wise and benevolent rule in Russia.
Talking of romance and of chivalry, that tattered book down yonder has as much between its disreputable covers as most that I know. It is Washington Irving's "Conquest of Granada." I do not know where he got his material for this book--from Spanish Chronicles, I presume--but the wars between the Moors and the Christian knights must have been among the most chivalrous of exploits. I could not name a book which gets the beauty and the glamour of it better than this one, the lance-heads gleaming in the dark defiles, the red bale fires glowing on the crags, the stern devotion of the mail-clad Christians, the debonnaire and courtly courage of the dashing Moslem. Had Washington Irving written nothing else, that book alone should have forced the door of every library. I love all his books, for no man wrote fresher English with a purer style; but of them all it is still "The Conquest of Granada" to which I turn most often.
To hark back for a moment to history as seen in romances, here are two exotics side by side, which have a flavour that is new. They are a brace of foreign novelists, each of whom, so far as I know, has only two books. This green-and-gold volume contains both the works of the Pomeranian Meinhold in an excellent translation by Lady Wilde. The first is "Sidonia the Sorceress," the second, "The Amber Witch." I don't know where one may turn for a stranger view of the Middle Ages, the quaint details of simple life, with sudden intervals of grotesque savagery. The most weird and barbarous things are made human and comprehensible. There is one incident which haunts one after one has read it, where the executioner chaffers with the villagers as to what price they will give him for putting some young witch to the torture, running them up from a barrel of apples to a barrel and a half, on the grounds that he is now old and rheumatic, and that the stooping and straining is bad for his back. It should be done on a sloping hill, he explains, so that the "dear little children" may see it easily. Both "Sidonia" and "The Amber Witch" give such a picture of old Germany as I have never seen elsewhere.
But Meinhold belongs to a bygone generation. This other author, in whom I find a new note, and one of great power, is Merejkowski, who is, if I mistake not, young and with his career still before him. "The Forerunner" and "The Death of the Gods" are the only two books of his which I have been able to obtain, but the pictures of Renaissance Italy in the one, and of declining Rome in the other, are in my opinion among the masterpieces of fiction. I confess that as I read them I was pleased to find how open my mind was to new impressions, for one of the greatest mental dangers which comes upon a man as he grows older is that he should become so attached to old favourites that he has no room for the new-comer, and persuades himself that the days of great things are at an end because his own poor brain is getting ossified. You have but to open any critical paper to see how common is the disease, but a knowledge of literary history assures us that it has always been the same, and that if the young writer is discouraged by adverse comparisons it has been the common lot from the beginning. He has but one resource, which is to pay no heed to criticism, but to try to satisfy his own highest standard and leave the rest to time and the public. Here is a little bit of doggerel, pinned, as you see, beside my bookcase, which may in a ruffled hour bring peace and guidance to some younger brother--
"Critics kind--never mind! Critics flatter--no matter! Critics blame--all the same! Critics curse--none the worse! Do your best-- ---- the rest!"