The literature of the past fifty years is too close to our eyes to enable the critic to pronounce a final judgment, or the literary historian to get a true perspective. Many of the principal writers of the time are still living, and many others have been dead but a few years. This concluding chapter, therefore, will be devoted to the consideration of the few who stand forth, incontestably, as the leaders of literary thought, and who seem likely, under all future changes of fashion and taste, to remain representatives of their generation. As regards form, the most striking fact in the history of the period under review is the immense preponderance in its imaginative literature of prose fiction, of the novel of real life. The novel has become to the solitary reader of to-day what the stage play was to the audiences of Elizabeth's reign, or the periodical essay, like the Tatler and Spectator, to the clubs and breakfast-tables of Queen Anne's. And if its criticism of life is less concentrated and brilliant than the drama gives, it is far more searching and minute. No period has ever left in its literary records so complete a picture of its whole society as the period which is just closing. At any other time than the present, the names of authors like Charlotte Bronté, Charles Kingsley, and Charles Reade—names which are here merely mentioned in passing—besides many others which want of space forbids us even to mention—would be of capital importance. As it is, we must limit our review to the three acknowledged masters of modern English fiction, Charles Dickens (1812-1870), William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), and "George Eliot" (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880).
It is sometimes helpful to reduce a great writer to his lowest term, in order to see what the prevailing bent of his genius is. This lowest term may often be found in his early work, before experience of the world has overlaid his original impulse with foreign accretions. Dickens was much more than a humorist, Thackeray than a satirist, and George Eliot than a moralist; but they had their starting-points respectively in humor, in burlesque, and in strong ethical and religious feeling. Dickens began with a broadly comic series of papers, contributed to the Old Magazine and the Evening Chronicle, and reprinted in book form, in 1836, as Sketches by Boz. The success of these suggested to a firm of publishers the preparation of a number of similar sketches of the misadventures of cockney sportsmen, to accompany plates by the comic draughtsman, Mr. R. Seymour. This suggestion resulted in the Pickwick Papers, published in monthly installments in 1836-1837. The series grew, under Dickens's hand, into a continuous though rather loosely strung narrative of the doings of a set of characters, conceived with such exuberant and novel humor that it took the public by storm and raised its author at once to fame. Pickwick is by no means Dickens's best, but it is his most characteristic and most popular book. At the time that he wrote these early sketches he was a reporter for the Morning Chronicle. His naturally acute powers of observation had been trained in this pursuit to the utmost efficiency, and there always continued to be about his descriptive writing a reportorial and newspaper air. He had the eye for effect, the sharp fidelity to detail, the instinct for rapidly seizing upon and exaggerating the salient point, which are developed by the requirements of modern journalism. Dickens knew London as no one else has ever known it, and, in particular, he knew its hideous and grotesque recesses, with the strange developments of human nature that abide there; slums like Tom-all-Alone's, in Bleak House; the river-side haunts of Rogue Riderhood, in Our Mutual Friend; as well as the old inns, like the "White Hart," and the "dusky purlieus of the law." As a man, his favorite occupation was walking the streets, where, as a child, he had picked up the most valuable part of his education. His tramps about London—often after nightfall—sometimes extended to fifteen miles in a day. He knew, too, the shifts of poverty. His father—some traits of whom are preserved in Mr. Micawber—was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea prison, where his wife took lodging with him, while Charles, then a boy of ten, was employed at six shillings a week to cover blacking-pots in Warner's blacking warehouse. The hardships and loneliness of this part of his life are told under a thin disguise in Dickens's masterpiece, David Copperfield, the most autobiographical of his novels. From these young experiences he gained that insight into the lives of the lower classes and that sympathy with children and with the poor which shine out in his pathetic sketches of Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop; of Paul Dombey; of poor Jo, in Bleak House; of "the Marchioness," and a hundred other figures.
In Oliver Twist, contributed, during 1837-1838, to Bentley's Miscellany, a monthly magazine of which Dickens was editor, he produced his first regular novel. In this story of the criminal classes the author showed a tragic power which he had not hitherto exhibited. Thenceforward his career was a series of dazzling successes. It is impossible here to particularize his numerous novels, sketches, short tales, and "Christmas Stories"—the latter a fashion which he inaugurated, and which has produced a whole literature in itself. In Nicholas Nickleby, 1839; Master Humphrey's Clock, 1840; Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844; Dombey and Son, 1848; David Copperfield, 1850, and Bleak House, 1853, there is no falling off in strength. The last named was, in some respects, and especially in the skillful construction of the plot, his best novel. In some of his latest books, as Great Expectations, 1861, and Our Mutual Friend, 1865, there are signs of a decline. This showed itself in an unnatural exaggeration of characters and motives, and a painful straining after humorous effects; faults, indeed, from which Dickens was never wholly free. There was a histrionic side to him, which came out in his fondness for private theatricals, in which he exhibited remarkable talent, and in the dramatic action which he introduced into the delightful public readings from his works that he gave before vast audiences all over the United Kingdom, and in his two visits to America. It is not surprising, either, to learn that upon the stage his preference was for melodrama and farce. His own serious writing was always dangerously close to the melodramatic, and his humor to the farcical. There is much false art, bad taste, and even vulgarity in Dickens. He was never quite a gentleman, and never succeeded well in drawing gentlemen or ladies. In the region of low comedy he is easily the most original, the most inexhaustible, the most wonderful, of modern humorists. Creations such as Mrs. Nickleby, Mr. Micawber, Sam Weller, Sairy Gamp, take rank with Falstaff and Dogberry; while many others, like Dick Swiveller, Stiggins, Chadband, Mrs. Jellyby, and Julia Mills, are almost equally good. In the innumerable swarm of minor characters with which he has enriched our comic literature there is no indistinctness. Indeed, the objection that has been made to him is that his characters are too distinct—that he puts labels on them; that they are often mere personifications of a single trick of speech or manner, which becomes tedious and unnatural by repetition. Thus, Grandfather Smallweed is always settling down into his cushion, and having to be shaken up; Mr. Jellyby is always sitting with his head against the wall; Peggotty is always bursting her buttons off, etc. As Dickens's humorous characters tend perpetually to run into caricatures and grotesques, so his sentiment, from the same excess, slops over too frequently into "gush," and into a too deliberate and protracted attack upon the pity. A favorite humorous device in his style is a stately and roundabout way of telling a trivial incident, as where, for example, Mr. Roker "muttered certain unpleasant invocations concerning his own eyes, limbs, and circulating fluids;" or where the drunken man who is singing comic songs in the Fleet received from Mr. Smangle "a gentle intimation, through the medium of the water-jug, that his audience were not musically disposed." This manner was original with Dickens, though he may have taken a hint of it from the mock heroic language of Jonathan Wild; but as practiced by a thousand imitators, ever since, it has gradually become a burden.
It would not be the whole truth to say that the difference between the humor of Thackeray and Dickens is the same as between that of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Yet it is true that the "humors" of Ben Jonson have an analogy with the extremer instances of Dickens's character sketches in this respect, namely, that they are both studies of the eccentric, the abnormal, the whimsical, rather than of the typical and universal; studies of manners, rather than of whole characters. And it is easily conceivable that, at no distant day, the oddities of Captain Cuttle, Deportment Turveydrop, Mark Tapley, and Newman Noggs will seem as far-fetched and impossible as those of Captain Otter, Fastidious Brisk and Sir Amorous La-Foole.
When Dickens was looking about for some one to take Seymour's place as illustrator of Pickwick, Thackeray applied for the job, but without success. He was then a young man of twenty-five, and still hesitating between art and literature. He had begun to draw caricatures with his pencil when a school-boy at the Charter House, and to scribble them with his pen when a student at Cambridge, editing The Snob, a weekly under-graduate paper, and parodying the prize poem Timbuctoo of his contemporary at the university, Alfred Tennyson. Then he went abroad to study art, passing a season at Weimar, where he met Goethe and filled the albums of the young Saxon ladies with caricatures; afterward living a bohemian existence in the Latin quarter at Paris, studying art in a desultory way, and seeing men and cities; accumulating portfolios full of sketches, but laying up stores of material to be used afterward to greater advantage when he should settle upon his true medium of expression. By 1837, having lost his fortune of five hundred pounds a year in speculation and gambling, he began to contribute to Fraser's, and thereafter to the New Monthly, Cruikshank's Comic Almanac, Punch, and other periodicals, clever burlesques, art criticisms by "Michael Angelo Titmarsh," Yellowplush Papers, and all manner of skits, satirical character sketches, and humorous tales, like the Great Hoggarty Diamond and the Luck of Barry Lyndon. Some of these were collected in the Paris Sketch-Book, 1840, and the Irish Sketch-Book, 1843; but Thackeray was slow in winning recognition, and it was not until the publication of his first great novel, Vanity Fair, in monthly parts, during 1846-1848, that he achieved any thing like the general reputation that Dickens had reached at a bound. Vanity Fair described itself, on its title-page, as "a novel without a hero." It was also a novel without a plot—in the sense in which Bleak House or Nicholas Nickleby had a plot—and in that respect it set the fashion for the latest school of realistic fiction, being a transcript of life, without necessary beginning or end. Indeed, one of the pleasantest things to a reader of Thackeray is the way which his characters have of re-appearing, as old acquaintances, in his different books; just as, in real life, people drop out of mind and then turn up again in other years and places. Vanity Fair is Thackeray's masterpiece, but it is not the best introduction to his writings. There are no illusions in it, and, to a young reader fresh from Scott's romances or Dickens's sympathetic extravagances, it will seem hard and repellent. But men who, like Thackeray, have seen life and tasted its bitterness and felt its hollowness know how to prize it. Thackeray does not merely expose the cant, the emptiness, the self-seeking, the false pretenses, flunkeyism, and snobbery—the "mean admiration of mean things"—in the great world of London society; his keen, unsparing vision detects the base alloy in the purest natures. There are no "heroes" in his books, no perfect characters. Even his good women, such as Helen and Laura Pendennis, are capable of cruel injustice toward less fortunate sisters, like little Fanny; and Amelia Sedley is led, by blind feminine instinct, to snub and tyrannize over poor Dobbin. The shabby miseries of life, the numbing and belittling influences of failure and poverty on the most generous natures, are the tragic themes which Thackeray handles by preference. He has been called a cynic, but the boyish playfulness of his humor and his kindly spirit are incompatible with cynicism. Charlotte Bronté said that Fielding was the vulture and Thackeray the eagle. The comparison would have been truer if made between Swift and Thackeray. Swift was a cynic; his pen was driven by hate, but Thackeray's by love, and it was not in bitterness but in sadness that the latter laid bare the wickedness of the world. He was himself a thorough man of the world, and he had that dislike for a display of feeling which characterizes the modern Englishman. But behind his satiric mask he concealed the manliest tenderness, and a reverence for every thing in human nature that is good and true. Thackeray's other great novels are Pendennis, 1849; Henry Esmond, 1852, and The Newcomes, 1855—the last of which contains his most lovable character, the pathetic and immortal figure of Colonel Newcome, a creation worthy to stand, in its dignity and its sublime weakness, by the side of Don Quixote. It was alleged against Thackeray that he made all his good characters, like Major Dobbin and Amelia Sedley and Colonel Newcome, intellectually feeble, and his brilliant characters, like Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne and Blanche Amory, morally bad. This is not entirely true, but the other complaint—that his women are inferior to his men—is true in a general way. Somewhat inferior to his other novels were The Virginians, 1858, and The Adventures of Philip, 1862. All of these were stories of contemporary life, except Henry Esmond and its sequel, The Virginians, which, though not precisely historical fictions, introduced historical figures, such as Washington and the Earl of Peterborough. Their period of action was the 18th century, and the dialogue was a cunning imitation of the language of that time. Thackeray was strongly attracted by the 18th century. His literary teachers were Addison, Swift, Steele, Gay, Johnson, Richardson, Goldsmith, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, and his special master and model was Fielding. He projected a history of the century, and his studies in this kind took shape in his two charming series of lectures on The English Humorists and The Four Georges. These he delivered in England and in America, to which country he, like Dickens, made two several visits.
Thackeray's genius was, perhaps, less astonishing than Dickens's; less fertile, spontaneous, and inventive; but his art is sounder, and his delineation of character more truthful. After one has formed a taste for his books, Dickens's sentiment will seem overdone, and much of his humor will have the air of buffoonery. Thackeray had the advantage in another particular: he described the life of the upper classes, and Dickens of the lower. It may be true that the latter offers richer material to the novelist, in the play of elementary passions and in strong native developments of character. It is true, also, that Thackeray approached "society" rather to satirize it than to set forth its agreeableness. Yet, after all, it is "the great world" which he describes, that world upon which the broadening and refining processes of a high civilization have done their utmost, and which, consequently, must possess an intellectual interest superior to any thing in the life of London thieves, traveling showmen, and coachees. Thackeray is the equal of Swift as a satirist, of Dickens as a humorist, and of Scott as a novelist. The one element lacking in him—and which Scott had in a high degree—is the poetic imagination. "I have no brains above my eyes" he said; "I describe what I see." Hence there is wanting in his creations that final charm which Shakespeare's have. For what the eyes see is not all.
The great woman who wrote under the pen-name of George Eliot was a humorist, too. She had a rich, deep humor of her own, and a wit that crystallized into sayings which are not epigrams only because their wisdom strikes more than their smartness. But humor was not, as with Thackeray and Dickens, her point of view. A country girl, the daughter of a land agent and surveyor at Nuneaton, in Warwickshire, her early letters and journals exhibit a Calvinistic gravity and moral severity. Later, when her truth to her convictions led her to renounce the Christian belief, she carried into positivism the same religious earnestness, and wrote the one English hymn of the religion of humanity:O, let me join the choir invisible, etc.
Her first published work was a translation of Strauss's Leben Jesu, 1846. In 1851 she went to London and became one of the editors of the Radical organ, the Westminster Review. Here she formed a connection—a marriage in all but the name—with George Henry Lewes, who was, like herself, a freethinker, and who published, among other things, a Biographical History of Philosophy. Lewes had also written fiction, and it was at his suggestion that his wife undertook story writing. Her Scenes of Clerical Life were contributed to Blackwood's Magazine for 1857, and published in book form in the following year. Adam Bede followed in 1859, the Mill on the Floss in 1860, Silas Marner in 1861, Romola in 1863, Felix Holt in 1866, and Middlemarch in 1872. All of these, except Romola, are tales of provincial and largely of domestic life in the midland counties. Romola is an historical novel, the scene of which is Florence in the 15th century; the Florence of Macchiavelli and of Savonarola.
George Eliot's method was very different from that of Thackeray or Dickens. She did not crowd her canvas with the swarming life of cities. Her figures are comparatively few, and they are selected from the middle-class families of rural parishes or small towns, amid that atmosphere of "fine old leisure;" whose disappearance she lamented. Her drama is a still-life drama, intensely and profoundly inward. Character is the stuff that she works in, and she deals with it more subtly than Thackeray. With him the tragedy is produced by the pressure of society and its false standards upon the individual; with her, by the malign influence of individuals upon one another. She watches "the stealthy convergence of human fates," the intersection at various angles of the planes of character, the power that the lower nature has to thwart, stupefy, or corrupt the higher, which has become entangled with it in the mesh of destiny. At the bottom of every one of her stories there is a problem of the conscience or the intellect. In this respect she resembles Hawthorne, though she is not, like him, a romancer, but a realist.
There is a melancholy philosophy in her books, most of which are tales of failure or frustration. The Mill on the Floss contains a large element of autobiography, and its heroine, Maggie Tulliver, is, perhaps, her idealized self. Her aspirations after a fuller and nobler existence are condemned to struggle against the resistance of a narrow, provincial environment, and the pressure of untoward fates. She is tempted to seek an escape even through a desperate throwing off of moral obligations, and is driven back to her duty only to die by a sudden stroke of destiny. "Life is a bad business," wrote George Eliot, in a letter to a friend, "and we must make the most of it." Adam Bede is, in construction, the most perfect of her novels, and Silas Marner of her shorter stories. Her analytic habit gained more and more upon her as she wrote. Middlemarch, in some respects her greatest book, lacks the unity of her earlier novels, and the story tends to become subordinate to the working out of character studies and social problems. The philosophic speculations which she shared with her husband were seemingly unfavorable to her artistic growth, a circumstance which becomes apparent in her last novel, Daniel Deronda, 1877. Finally in the Impressions of Theophrastus Such, 1879, she abandoned narrative altogether, and recurred to that type of "character" books which we have met as a flourishing department of literature in the 17th century, represented by such works as Earle's Microcosmographie and Fuller's Holy and Profane State. The moral of George Eliot's writings is not obtruded. She never made the artistic mistake of writing a novel of purpose, or what the Germans call a tendenz-roman; as Dickens did, for example, when he attacked imprisonment for debt, in Pickwick; the poor laws, in Oliver Twist; the Court of Chancery, in Bleak House; and the Circumlocution office, in Little Dorrit.
Next to the novel, the essay has been the most overflowing literary form used by the writers of this generation—a form characteristic, it may be, of an age which "lectures, not creates." It is not the essay of Bacon, nor yet of Addison, nor of Lamb, but attempts a complete treatment. Indeed, many longish books, like Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship and Ruskin's Modern Painters, are, in spirit, rather literary essays than formal treatises. The most popular essayist and historian of his time was Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), an active and versatile man, who won splendid success in many fields of labor. He was prominent in public life as one of the leading orators and writers of the Whig party. He sat many times in the House of Commons, as member for Calne, for Leeds, and for Edinburgh, and took a distinguished part in the debates on the Reform bill of 1832. He held office in several Whig governments, and during his four years' service in British India, as member of the Supreme Council of Calcutta, he did valuable work in promoting education in that province, and in codifying the Indian penal law. After his return to England, and especially after the publication of his History of England from The Accession of James II., honors and appointments of all kinds were showered upon him. In 1857 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Macaulay of Rothley.
Macaulay's equipment, as a writer on historical and biographical subjects, was, in some points, unique. His reading was prodigious, and his memory so tenacious that it was said, with but little exaggeration, that he never forgot any thing that he had read. He could repeat the whole of Paradise Lost by heart, and thought it probable that he could rewrite Sir Charles Grandison from memory. In his books, in his speeches in the House of Commons, and in private conversation—for he was an eager and fluent talker, running on often for hours at a stretch—he was never at a loss to fortify and illustrate his positions by citation after citation of dates, names, facts of all kinds, and passages quoted verbatim from his multifarious reading. The first of Macaulay's writings to attract general notice was his article on Milton, printed in the August number of the Edinburgh Review for 1825. The editor, Lord Jeffrey, in acknowledging the receipt of the manuscript, wrote to his new contributor, "The more I think, the less I can conceive where you picked up that style." That celebrated style—about which so much has since been written—was an index to the mental character of its owner. Macaulay was of a confident, sanguine, impetuous nature. He had great common sense, and he saw what he saw quickly and clearly, but he did not see very far below the surface. He wrote with the conviction of an advocate, and the easy omniscience of a man whose learning is really nothing more than "general information" raised to a very high power, rather than with the subtle penetration of an original or truly philosophic intellect, like Coleridge's or De Quincey's. He always had at hand explanations of events or of characters which were admirably easy and simple—too simple, indeed, for the complicated phenomena which they professed to explain. His style was clear, animated, showy, and even its faults were of an exciting kind. It was his habit to give piquancy to his writing by putting things concretely. Thus, instead of saying, in general terms—as Hume or Gibbon might have done—that the Normans and Saxons began to mingle about 1200, he says: "The great-grandsons of those who had fought under William and the great grandsons of those who had fought under Harold began to draw near to each other." Macaulay was a great scene painter, who neglected delicate truths of detail for exaggerated distemper effects. He used the rhetorical machinery of climax and hyperbole for all that it was worth, and he "made points"—as in his essay on Bacon—by creating antithesis. In his History of England he inaugurated the picturesque method of historical writing. The book was as fascinating as any novel. Macaulay, like Scott, had the historic imagination, though his method of turning history into romance was very different from Scott's. Among his essays the best are those which, like the ones on Lord Clive, Warren Hastings, and Frederick the Great, deal with historical subjects; or those which deal with literary subjects under their public historic relations, such as the essays on Addison, Bunyan, and The Comic Dramatists of the Restoration. "I have never written a page of criticism on poetry, or the fine arts," wrote Macaulay, "which I would not burn if I had the power." Nevertheless his own Lays of Ancient Rome, 1842, are good, stirring verse of the emphatic and declamatory kind, though their quality may be rather rhetorical than poetic.
Our critical time has not forborne to criticize itself, and perhaps the writer who impressed himself most strongly upon his generation was the one who railed most desperately against the "spirit of the age." Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was occupied between 1822 and 1830 chiefly in imparting to the British public a knowledge of German literature. He published, among other things, a Life of Schiller, a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, and two volumes of translations from the German romancers—Tieck, Hoffmann, Richter, and Fouqué—and contributed to the Edinburgh and Foreign Review articles on Goethe, Werner, Novalis, Richter, German playwrights, the Nibelungen Lied, etc. His own diction became more and more tinctured with Germanisms. There was something Gothic in his taste, which was attracted by the lawless, the grotesque, and the whimsical in the writings of Jean Paul Richter. His favorite among English humorists was Sterne, who has a share of these same qualities. He spoke disparagingly of "the sensuous literature of the Greeks," and preferred the Norse to the Hellenic mythology. Even in his admirable critical essays on Burns, on Richter, on Scott, Diderot, and Voltaire, which are free from his later mannerism—written in English, and not in Carlylese—his sense of spirit is always more lively than his sense of form. He finally became so impatient of art as to maintain—half-seriously—the paradox that Shakespeare would have done better to write in prose. In three of these early essays—on the Signs of the Times, 1829; on History, 1830, and on Characteristics, 1831—are to be found the germs of all his later writings. The first of these was an arraignment of the mechanical spirit of the age. In every province of thought he discovered too great a reliance upon systems, institutions, machinery, instead of upon men. Thus, in religion, we have Bible societies, "machines for converting the heathen." "In defect of Raphaels and Angelos and Mozarts, we have royal academies of painting, sculpture, music." In like manner, he complains, government is a machine. "Its duties and faults are not those of a father, but of an active parish-constable." Against the "police theory," as distinguished from the "paternal" theory, of government, Carlyle protested with ever shriller iteration. In Chartism, 1839, Past and Present, 1843, and Latter-day Pamphlets, 1850, he denounced this laissez faire idea. The business of government, he repeated, is to govern; but this view makes it its business to refrain from governing. He fought most fiercely against the conclusions of political economy, "the dismal science" which, he said, affirmed that men were guided exclusively by their stomachs. He protested, too, against the Utilitarians, followers of Bentham and Mill, with their "greatest happiness principle," which reduced virtue to a profit-and-loss account. Carlyle took issue with modern liberalism; he ridiculed the self-gratulation of the time, all the talk about progress of the species, unexampled prosperity, etc. But he was reactionary without being conservative. He had studied the French Revolution, and he saw the fateful, irresistible approach of democracy. He had no faith in government "by counting noses," and he hated talking Parliaments; but neither did he put trust in an aristocracy that spent its time in "preserving the game." What he wanted was a great individual ruler; a real king or hero; and this doctrine he set forth afterward most fully in Hero Worship, 1841, and illustrated in his lives of representative heroes, such as his Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, 1845, and his great History of Frederick the Great, 1858-1865. Cromwell and Frederick were well enough; but as Carlyle grew older his admiration for mere force grew, and his latest hero was none other than that infamous Dr. Francia, the South American dictator, whose career of bloody and crafty crime horrified the civilized world.
The essay on History was a protest against the scientific view of history which attempts to explain away and account for the wonderful. "Wonder," he wrote in Sartor Resartus, "is the basis of all worship." He defined history as "the essence of innumerable biographies." "Mr. Carlyle," said the Italian patriot, Mazzini, "comprehends only the individual. The nationality of Italy is, in his eyes, the glory of having produced Dante and Christopher Columbus." This trait comes out in his greatest book, The French Revolution, 1837, which is a mighty tragedy enacted by a few leading characters—Mirabeau, Danton, Napoleon. He loved to emphasize the superiority of history over fiction as dramatic material. The third of the three essays mentioned was a Jeremiad on the morbid self-consciousness of the age, which shows itself, in religion and philosophy, as skepticism and introspective metaphysics; and in literature, as sentimentalism, and "view-hunting."
But Carlyle's epoch-making book was Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored), published in Fraser's Magazine for 1833-1834, and first reprinted in book form in America. This was a satire upon shams, conventions, the disguises which overlie the most spiritual realities of the soul. It purported to be the life and "clothes-philosophy" of a certain Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Professor der Allerlei Wissenschaft—of things in general—in the University of Weissnichtwo. "Society," said Carlyle, "is founded upon cloth," following the suggestions of Lear's speech to the naked bedlam beggar: "Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art;" and borrowing also, perhaps, an ironical hint from a paragraph in Swift's Tale of a Tub: "A sect was established who held the universe to be a large suit of clothes.... If certain ermines or furs be placed in a certain position, we style them a judge; and so an apt conjunction of lawn and black satin we entitle a bishop." In Sartor Resartus Carlyle let himself go. It was willful, uncouth, amorphous, titanic. There was something monstrous in the combination—the hot heart of the Scot married to the transcendental dream of Germany. It was not English, said the reviewers; it was not sense; it was disfigured by obscurity and "mysticism." Nevertheless even the thin-witted and the dry-witted had to acknowledge the powerful beauty of many chapters and passages, rich with humor, eloquence, poetry, deep-hearted tenderness, or passionate scorn.
Carlyle was a voracious reader, and the plunder of whole literatures is strewn over his pages. He flung about the resources of the language with a giant's strength, and made new words at every turn. The concreteness and the swarming fertility of his mind are evidenced by his enormous vocabulary, computed greatly to exceed Shakespeare's, or any other single writer's in the English tongue. His style lacks the crowning grace of simplicity and repose. It astonishes, but it also fatigues.
Carlyle's influence has consisted more in his attitude than in any special truth which he has preached. It has been the influence of a moralist, of a practical rather than a speculative philosopher. "The end of man," he wrote, "is an action, not a thought." He has not been able to persuade the time that it is going wrong, but his criticisms have been wholesomely corrective of its self-conceit. In a democratic age he has insisted upon the undemocratic virtues of obedience, silence, and reverence. Ehrfurcht, reverence—the text of his address to the students of Edinburgh University in 1866—is the last word of his philosophy.
In 1830 Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), a young graduate of Cambridge, published a thin duodecimo of 154 pages entitled Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. The pieces in this little volume, such as the Sleeping Beauty, Ode to Memory, and Recollections of the Arabian Nights, were full of color, fragrance, melody; but they had a dream-like character, and were without definite theme, resembling an artist's studies, or exercises in music—a few touches of the brush, a few sweet chords, but no aria. A number of them—Claribel, Lilian, Adeline, Isabel, Mariana, Madeline—were sketches of women; not character portraits, like Browning's Men and Women, but impressions of temperament, of delicately differentiated types of feminine beauty. In Mariana, expanded from a hint of the forsaken maid in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, "Mariana at the moated grange," the poet showed an art then peculiar, but since grown familiar, of heightening the central feeling by landscape accessories. The level waste, the stagnant sluices, the neglected garden, the wind in the single poplar, re-enforce, by their monotonous sympathy, the loneliness, the hopeless waiting and weariness of life in the one human figure of the poem. In Mariana, the Ode to Memory, and the Dying Swan, it was the fens of Cambridge and of his native Lincolnshire that furnished Tennyson's scenery.Stretched wide and wild, the waste enormous marsh,
A second collection, published in 1833, exhibited a greater scope and variety, but was still in his earlier manner. The studies of feminine types were continued in Margaret, Fatima, Eleanore, Mariana in the South, and A Dream of Fair Women, suggested by Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. In the Lady of Shalott the poet first touched the Arthurian legends. The subject is the same as that of Elaine, in the Idylls of the King, but the treatment is shadowy, and even allegorical. In OEnone and the Lotus Eaters he handled Homeric subjects, but in a romantic fashion which contrasts markedly with the style of his later pieces, Ulysses and Tithonus. These last have the true classic severity, and are among the noblest specimens of weighty and sonorous blank verse in modern poetry. In general, Tennyson's art is unclassical. It is rich, ornate, composite; not statuesque so much as picturesque. He is a great painter, and the critics complain that in passages calling for movement and action—a battle, a tournament, or the like—his figures stand still as in a tableau; and they contrast such passages unfavorably with scenes of the same kind in Scott, and with Browning's spirited ballad, How we Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. In the Palace of Art these elaborate pictorial effects were combined with allegory; in the Lotus Eaters, with that expressive treatment of landscape noted in Mariana; the lotus land, "in which it seemed always afternoon," reflecting and promoting the enchanted indolence of the heroes. Two of the pieces in this 1833 volume, the May Queen and the Miller's Daughter, were Tennyson's first poems of the affections, and as ballads of simple rustic life they anticipated his more perfect idyls in blank verse, such as Dora, the Brook, Edwin Morris, and the Gardener's Daughter. The songs in the Miller's Daughter had a more spontaneous lyrical movement than any thing he had yet published, and foretokened the lovely songs which interlude the divisions of the Princess, the famous Bugle Song, the no-less famous Cradle Song, and the rest. In 1833 Tennyson's friend, Arthur Hallam, died, and the effect of this great sorrow upon the poet was to deepen and strengthen the character of his genius. It turned his mind in upon itself, and set it brooding over questions which his poetry had so far left untouched; the meaning of life and death, the uses of adversity, the future of the race, the immortality of the soul, and the dealings of God with mankind.Thou madest Death: and, lo, thy foot
His elegy on Hallam, In Memoriam, was not published till 1850. He kept it by him all those years, adding section after section, gathering up into it whatever reflections crystallized about its central theme. It is his most intellectual and most individual work; a great song of sorrow and consolation. In 1842 he published a third collection of poems, among which were Locksley Hall, displaying a new strength, of passion; Ulysses, suggested by a passage in Dante: pieces of a speculative cast, like the Two Voices and the Vision of Sin; the song Break, Break, Break, which preluded In Memoriam; and, lastly, some additional gropings toward the subject of the Arthurian romance, such as Sir Galahad, Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere, and Morte d' Arthur. The last was in blank verse, and, as afterward incorporated in the Passing of Arthur, forms one of the best passages in the Idylls of the King. The Princess, a Medley, published in 1849, represents the eclectic character of Tennyson's art; a mediæval tale with an admixture of modern sentiment, and with the very modern problem of woman's sphere for its theme. The first four Idylls of the King, 1859, with those since added, constitute, when taken together, an epic poem on the old story of King Arthur. Tennyson went to Malory's Morte Darthur for his material, but the outline of the first idyl, Enid, was taken from Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Welsh Mabinogion. In the idyl of Guinevere Tennyson's genius reached its high-water mark. The interview between Arthur and his fallen queen is marked by a moral sublimity and a tragic intensity which move the soul as nobly as any scene in modern literature. Here, at least, the art is pure and not "decorated;" the effect is produced by the simplest means, and all is just, natural, and grand. Maud—a love novel in verse—published in 1855, and considerably enlarged in 1856, had great sweetness and beauty, particularly in its lyrical portions, but it was uneven in execution, imperfect in design, and marred by lapses into mawkishness and excess in language. Since 1860 Tennyson has added little of permanent value to his work. His dramatic experiments, like Queen Mary, are not, on the whole, successful, though it would be unjust to deny dramatic power to the poet who has written, upon one hand, Guinevere and the Passing of Arthur, and upon the other the homely dialectic monologue of the Northern Farmer.
When we tire of Tennyson's smooth perfection, of an art that is over exquisite, and a beauty that is well-nigh too beautiful, and crave a rougher touch, and a meaning that will not yield itself too readily, we turn to the thorny pages of his great contemporary, Robert Browning (1812-1889). Dr. Holmes says that Tennyson is white meat and Browning is dark meat. A masculine taste, it is inferred, is shown in a preference for the gamier flavor. Browning makes us think; his poems are puzzles, and furnish business for "Browning Societies." There are no Tennyson societies, because Tennyson is his own interpreter. Intellect in a poet may display itself quite as properly in the construction of his poem as in its content; we value a building for its architecture, and not entirely for the amount of timber in it. Browning's thought never wears so thin as Tennyson's sometimes does in his latest verse, where the trick of his style goes on of itself with nothing behind it. Tennyson, at his worst, is weak. Browning, when not at his best, is hoarse. Hoarseness, in itself, is no sign of strength. In Browning, however, the failure is in art, not in thought.
He chooses his subjects from abnormal character types, such as are presented, for example, in Caliban upon Setebos, the Grammarian's Funeral, My Last Duchess and Mr. Sludge, the Medium. These are all psychological studies, in which the poet gets into the inner consciousness of a monster, a pedant, a criminal, and a quack, and gives their point of view. They are dramatic soliloquies; but the poet's self-identification with each of his creations, in turn, remains incomplete. His curious, analytic observation, his way of looking at the soul from outside, gives a doubleness to the monologues in his Dramatic Lyrics, 1845, Men and Women, 1855, Dramatis Personæ, 1864, and other collections of the kind. The words are the words of Caliban or Mr. Sludge; but the voice is the voice of Robert Browning. His first complete poem, Paracelsus, 1835, aimed to give the true inwardness of the career of the famous 16th century doctor, whose name became a synonym with charlatan. His second, Sordello, 1840, traced the struggles of an Italian poet who lived before Dante, and could not reconcile his life with his art. Paracelsus was hard, but Sordello was incomprehensible. Browning has denied that he was ever perversely crabbed or obscure. Every great artist must be allowed to say things in his own way, and obscurity has its artistic uses, as the Gothic builders knew. But there are two kinds of obscurity in literature. One is inseparable from the subtlety and difficulty of the thought or the compression and pregnant indirectness of the phrase. Instances of this occur in the clear deeps of Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. The other comes from a vice of style, a willfully enigmatic and unnatural way of expressing thought. Both kinds of obscurity exist in Browning. He was a deep and subtle thinker, but he was also a very eccentric writer; abrupt, harsh, disjointed. It has been well said that the reader of Browning learns a new dialect. But one need not grudge the labor that is rewarded with an intellectual pleasure so peculiar and so stimulating. The odd, grotesque impression made by his poetry arises, in part, from his desire to use the artistic values of ugliness, as well as of obscurity; to avoid the shallow prettiness that comes from blinking the disagreeable truth: not to leave the saltness out of the sea. Whenever he emerges into clearness, as he does in hundreds of places, he is a poet of great qualities. There are a fire and a swing in his Cavalier Tunes, and in pieces like the Glove and the Lost Leader; and humor in such ballads as the Pied Piper of Hamelin and the Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, which appeal to the most conservative reader. He seldom deals directly in the pathetic, but now and then, as in Evelyn Hope, the Last Ride Together, or the Incident of the French Camp, a tenderness comes over the strong verseas sheathes
Perhaps the most astonishing example of Browning's mental vigor is the huge composition, entitled The Ring and the Book, 1868; a narrative poem in twenty-one thousand lines in which the same story is repeated eleven times in eleven different ways. It is the story of a criminal trial which occurred at Rome about 1700, the trial of one Count Guido for the murder of his young wife. First the poet tells the tale himself; then he tells what one half the world said and what the other; then he gives the deposition of the dying girl, the testimony of witnesses, the speech made by the count in his own defense, the arguments of counsel, etc., and, finally, the judgment of the pope. So wonderful are Browning's resources in casuistry, and so cunningly does he ravel the intricate motives at play in this tragedy and lay bare the secrets of the heart, that the interest increases at each repetition of the tale. He studied the Middle Age carefully, not for its picturesque externals, its feudalisms, chivalries, and the like; but because he found it a rich quarry of spiritual monstrosities, strange outcroppings of fanaticism, superstition, and moral and mental distortion of all shapes. It furnished him especially with a great variety of ecclesiastical types, such as are painted in Fra Lippo Lippi, The Heretic's Tragedy, and The Bishop Orders his Tomb in St. Praxed's Church.
Browning's dramatic instinct always attracted him to the stage. His tragedy, Strafford (1837), was written for Macready, and put on at Covent Garden Theater, but without pronounced success. He wrote many fine dramatic poems, like Pippa Passes, Colombe's Birthday, and In a Balcony; and at least two good acting plays, Luria and A Blot in the Scutcheon. The last named has recently been given to the American public, with Lawrence Barrett's careful and intelligent presentation of the leading role. The motive of the tragedy is somewhat strained and fantastic, but it is, notwithstanding, very effective on the stage. It gives one an unwonted thrill to listen to a play, by a contemporary English writer, which is really literature. One gets a faint idea of what it must have been to assist at the first night of Hamlet.
1. English Literature in the Reign of Victoria. Henry Morley. (Tauchnitz Series.)
2. Victorian Poets. E.C. Stedman. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1886.
3. Dickens. Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Tale of Two Cities.
4. Thackeray. Vanity Fair, Pendennis, Henry Esmond, The Newcomes.
6. Macaulay. Essays, Lays of Ancient Rome.
7. Carlyle. Sartor Resartus, French Revolution, Essays on History, Signs of the Times, Characteristics, Burns, Scott, Voltaire, and Goethe.
8 The Works of Alfred Tennyson. London: Stranham & Co., 1872. 6 vols.
9. Selections from the Poetical Works of Robert Browning. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1880. 2 vols.
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