Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/Sham Admiration in Literature
|←The Buffalo and his Fate|| Popular Science Monthly Volume 17 May 1880 (1880)
Sham Admiration in Literature
By James Payn
|The Impediment of Adipose: A Celebrated Case→|
IN all highly civilized communities Pretense is prominent, and sooner or later invades the regions of Literature. In the beginning, this is not altogether to be reprobated; it is the rude homage which Ignorance, conscious of its disgrace, offers to Learning; but after a while, Pretense becomes systematized, gathers strength from numbers and impunity, and rears its head in such a manner as to suggest it has some body and substance belonging to it. In England, literary pretense is more universal than elsewhere from our method of education. When young gentlemen from ten to sixteen are set to study poetry (a subject for which not one in a hundred has the least taste or capability even when he reads it in his own language) in Greek and Latin authors, it is only a natural consequence that their views upon it should be slightly artificial. The youth who objected to the alphabet that it seemed hardly worth while to have gone through so much to have acquired so little, was exceptionally sagacious; the more ordinary lad conceives that what has cost him so much time and trouble, and entailed so many pains and penalties, must needs have something in it, though it has never met his eye. Hence arises our public opinion upon the ancient classics, which I am afraid is somewhat different from (what painters term) the private view. If you take the ordinary admirer of Æschylus, for example—not the scholar, but the man who has had what he believes to be "a liberal education"—and appeal to his opinion upon some passage in a British dramatist, say Shakespeare, it is ten to one that he shows not only ignorance of the author (the odds are twenty to one about that), but utter inability to grasp the point in question; it is too deep for him, and especially too subtile. If you are cruel enough to press him, he will unconsciously betray the fact that he has never felt a line of poetry in his life. He honestly believes that the "Seven against Thebes" is one of the greatest works that ever was written, just as a child believes the same of the "Seven Champions of Christendom." A great wit once observed, when bored by the praises of a man who spoke six languages, that he had known a man to speak a dozen, and yet not say a word worth hearing in any one of them. The humor of the remark, as sometimes happens, has caused its wisdom to be underrated; for the fact is that, in very many cases, all the intelligence of which a mind is capable is expended upon the mere acquisition of a foreign language. As to getting anything out of it in the way of ideas, and especially of poetical ones, that is almost never attained. There are, indeed, many who have a special facility for languages, but in their case (with a few exceptions) one may say without uncharity that the acquisition of ideas is not their object, though if they did acquire them they would probably be new ones. The majority of us, however, have much difficulty in surmounting the obstacle of an alien tongue, and when we have done so we are naturally inclined to overrate the advantages thus attained. Every 'one knows the poor creature who quotes French on all occasions with a certain stress on the accent, designed to arouse a doubt in his hearers as to whether he was not actually born in Paris. He, of course, is a low specimen of the class in question, but almost all of us derive a certain intellectual gratification from the mastery of another language, and as we gradually attain to it, whenever we find a meaning we are apt to mistake it for a beauty. Nay, I am convinced that many admire this or that (even) British poet from the fact that here and there his meaning has gleamed upon them with all the charm that accompanies unexpectedness.
Since classical learning is compulsory with us, this bastard admiration is much more often excited with respect to the Greek and Latin poets. Men may not only go through the whole curriculum of a university education, but take high honors in it, without the least intellectual advantage beyond the acquisition of a few quotations. This is not, of course (good heavens!), because the classics have nothing to teach us in the way of poetical ideas, but simply because to the ordinary mind the acquisition of a poetical idea is very difficult, and when conveyed in a foreign language is impossible. If the same student had given the same time a monstrous thought, of course, but not impracticable—to the cultivation of Shakespeare and the old dramatists, or even to the more modern English poets and thinkers, he would certainly have got more out of them, though he would have missed the delicate suggestiveness of the Greek aorist and the exquisite subtilties of the particle de. Having acquired these last, however, and not for nothing, it is not surprising that he should esteem them very highly, and, being unable to popularize them at dinner-parties and the like, he falls back upon praise of the classics generally.
Such are the circumstances which, more particularly in this country, have led to a wellnigh universal habit of literary lying—of a pretense of admiration for certain works of which in reality we know very little, and for which, if we knew more, we should perhaps care less.
There are certain books which are standard, and as it were planted in the British soil, before which the great majority of us bow the knee and doff the cap with a reverence that, in its ignorance, reminds one of fetich-worship, and, in its affectation, of the passion for high art. The works without which, we are told at book-auctions, "no gentleman's library can be considered complete," are especially the objects of this adoration. The "Rambler," for example, is one of them. I was once shut up for a week of snow-storms in a mountain inn, with the "Rambler" and one other publication. The latter was a "Shepherd's Guide," with illustrations of the way in which sheep are marked by their various owners for the purpose of identification: "Cropped near ear, upper key bitted far, a pop on the head and another at the tail head, ritted, and with two red strokes down both shoulders," etc. It was monotonous, but I confess that there were times when I felt it some comfort in having that picture-book to fall back upon, to alternate with the "Rambler."
The essay, like port wine, I have noticed, requires age for its due appreciation. Leigh Hunt's "Indicator" comprises some admirable essays, but the general public have not a word to say for them; it may be urged that that is because they had not read the "Indicator." But why, then, do they praise the "Rambler" and Montaigne? That comforting word, "Mesopotamia," which has been so often alluded to in religious matters, has many a parallel in profane literature.
A good deal of this mock worship is of course due to abject cowardice. A man who says he doesn't like the "Rambler" runs, with some folks, the risk of being thought a fool; but he is sure to be thought that, for something or another, under any circumstances; and, at all events, why should he not content himself, when the "Rambler" is belauded, with holding his tongue and smiling acquiescence? It must be conceded that there are a few persons who really have read the "Rambler," a work, of course, I am merely using as a type of its class. In their young days it was used as a school-book, and thought necessary as a part of polite education; and, as they have read little or nothing since, it is only reasonable that they should stick to their colors. Indeed, the French satirist's boast that he could predicate the views of any man with regard to both worlds, if he were only supplied with the simple data of his age and his income, is quite true in the general with regard to literary taste. Given the age of the ordinary individual—that is to say of the gentleman "fond of books, but who has really no time for reading"—and it is easy enough to guess his literary idols. They are the gods of his youth, and, whether he has been "suckled in a creed outworn" or not, he knows no other. These persons, however, rarely give their opinion about literary matters, except on compulsion; they are harmless and truthful. The tendency of society in general, on the other hand, is not only to praise the "Rambler" which they have not read, but to express a noble scorn for those who have read it and don't like it.
I remember, as a young man, being greatly struck by the independence of character exhibited by Miss Brontë in a certain confession she made in respect to Miss Austen's novels. It was at a period when everybody professed to adore them, and especially the great guns of literature. Walter Scott thought more highly of the genius of the author of "Mansfield Park" even than of that of his favorite, Miss Edgeworth. Macaulay speaks of her as though she were the Eclipse of novelists—"first and the rest nowhere"—though his opinion, it is true, lost something of its force from the contempt he expressed for "the rest," among whom were some much better ones. Dr. Whewell, a very different type of mind, had "Mansfield Park," I believe, read to him on his death-bed. And, indeed, up to the present date, some highly cultured persons of my acquaintance take the same view. They may be very possibly right, but that is no reason why the people who have never read Miss Austen's novels—and very few have—should ape the fashion. Now, the authoress of "Jane Eyre" did not derive much pleasure from the perusal of the works of the other Jane. "I know it's very wrong," she modestly said, "but the fact is I can't read them. They have not got story enough in them to engage my attention. I don't want my blood curdled, but I like it stirred. She strikes me as milk-and-watery, and, to say truth, as dull."
This opinion she has, in effect, repeated in her published writings, but I had only heard her verbal expression of it, and I admired her courage. If she had been a man, struggling, as she then was, for a position in literature, she would not have dared to say half as much. For, what is very curious, the advocates of the classic authors—those I mean whom antiquity has more or less hallowed—instead of pitying those unhappy wights who confess their want of appreciation of them, fly at them with bludgeons, and dance upon their prostrate bodies with clogs.
"For who would rush on a benighted man,
And give him two black eyes for being blind?"
inquires the poet. I answer, "Lots of people," and especially those who worship the pagan divinities of literature. The same thing happens—but their fury is more excusable, because they have less natural intelligence—with the lovers of music. Instead of being sorry for the poor folks who have "no ear," and whom "a little music in the evening" bores to extremity, they overwhelm them with reproaches for what is in fact a natural infirmity. "You Goth! you Vandal!" they exclaim, "how contemptible is the creature who has no music in his soul!" Which is really very rude. Even persons who are not musical have their feelings. "Hath not a Jew ears?"—that is to say, though they have "no ear," they understand what is abusive language and resent it.
I am not saying one word against established reputations in literature. The very fact of their being established (even the "Rambler," for example, has its merits) is in their favor; and, indeed, some of the works I shall refer to are masterpieces. My objection is to the sham admiration of them, which does their authors no good (for their circulation is now of no consequence to them), and is injurious not only to modern writers (who are generally made the subject of base comparison), but especially to the utterers of this false coin themselves. One can not tell falsehoods, even about one's views in literature, without injury to one's morals, yet to "tell the truth and shame the devil" is easy, as it would seem, compared with telling the truth and defying the critics.
I have alluded to the intrepidity of Miss Brontë in this matter, and, curiously enough, it is women who have the most courage in the expression of their literary opinions. It may be said, of course, that this is due to the audacity of ignorance, and a well-known line may be quoted (for some people, as I have said, are rude) in which certain angels (who are not women) are represented as being afraid to tread in certain places. But I am speaking of women who are great readers. Miss Martineau once confessed to me that she could see no beauties in "Tom Jones." "Of course," she said, "the coarseness disgusts me, but, apart from that, I see no sort of merit in it." "What!" I replied, "no humor, no knowledge of human life?" "No; to me it is a wearisome book."
I disagreed with her very much upon that point, and do so still; yet, apart from the coarseness (which does not disgust everybody, let me tell you), there is a good deal of tedious reading in "Tom Jones." At all events, that expression of opinion from such lips strikes me as noteworthy.
It may here be said that there are many English authors of old date, some of whose beauties are unintelligible except to those who are acquainted with the classics; and "Tom Jones" is one of them. Many of the introductions to the chapters, not to mention a certain travesty of an Homeric battle, must needs be as wearisome to those who are not scholars as the spectacle of a burlesque is to those who have not seen the original play. This is still more the case with our old poets, especially Milton. I very much doubt, in spite of the universal chorus to the contrary, whether "Lycidas" is much admired by readers who are only acquainted with English literature; I am quite sure it never touched their hearts as, for example, "In Memoriam" does.
I once beheld a young lady of great literary taste, and of exquisite sensibility, torn to pieces (figuratively) and trampled upon by a great scholar for venturing to make a comparison between those two poems. Its invocation to the Muses and the general classical air which pervades it had destroyed for her the pathos of "Lycidas," whereas to her antagonist those very imperfections appeared to enhance its beauty. I did not interfere, because the wretch was her husband, and it would have been worse for her if I had, but my sympathies were entirely with her. Her sad fate—for the massacre took place in public—would, I was well aware, have the effect of making people lie worse than ever about Milton. On that same evening, while some folks were talking about Mr. Morris's "Earthly Paradise," I heard a scornful voice exclaim, "Oh! give me 'Paradise Lost,'" and with that gentleman I did have it out. I promptly subjected him to cross examination, and drove him to that extremity that he was compelled to admit he had never read a word of Milton for forty years, and even then only in extracts from "Enfield's Speaker."
With Shakespeare—though there is a good deal of lying about him—the case is different, and especially with elderly people; for "in their day," as they pathetically term it, Shakespeare was played everywhere, and every one went to the play. They do not read him, but they recollect him; they are well acquainted with his beauties—that is, with the better known of them—and can quote him with manifest appreciation. They are, intellectually, in a position much superior to that of a fashionable lady of my acquaintance who informed me that her daughters were going to the theatre that night to see Shakespeare's "Turning of the Screw."
The writer who has done most, without I suppose intending it, to promote hypocrisy in literature is Macaulay. His "every schoolboy knows" has frightened thousands into pretending to know authors with whom they have not even a bowing acquaintance. It is amazing that a man who had read so much should have written so contemptuously of those who have read but little; one would have thought that the consciousness of superiority would have forbidden such insolence, or that his reading would have been extensive enough to teach him at least how little he had read of what there was to read; since he read some things—works of imagination and humor, for example—to such very little purpose, he might really have bragged a little less. One feels quite grateful to Macaulay, however, for avowing his belief that he was the only man who had read through the "Faerie Queen"; since that exonerates everybody—I do not say from reading it, because the supposition is preposterous—but from the necessity of pretending to have read it. The pleasure derived from that poem to most minds is, I am convinced, analogous to that already spoken of as being imparted by a foreign author: namely, the satisfaction at finding it—in places—intelligible. For the few who possess the poetic faculty it has great beauties, but I observe, from the extracts that appear in poetic selections and the like, that the most tedious and even the most monstrous passages are often the most admired. The case of Spenser in this respect which does not stand alone in ancient English literature—has a curious parallel in art, where people are positively found to go into ecstasies over a distorted limb or a ludicrous inversion of perspective, simply because it is the work of an old master, who knew no better, or followed the fashion of his time.
Leigh Hunt read the "Faerie Queen," by the by, as almost everything else that has been written in the English tongue, and even Macaulay alludes with rare commendation to his "catholic taste." Of all authors indeed, and probably of all readers, Leigh Hunt had the keenest eye for merit and the warmest appreciation of it wherever found. He was actively engaged in politics, yet was never blind to the genius of an adversary; blameless himself in morals, he could admire the wit of Wycherley; and, a freethinker in religion, he could see both wisdom and beauty in the divines. Moreover, it is immensely to his credit, that this universal knowledge, instead of puffing him up, only moved him to impart it, and that next to the pleasure he took in books was that he derived from teaching others to take pleasure in them. Witness his "Wit and Humor" and his "Imagination and Fancy," to my mind the greatest treasures in the way of handbooks that have ever been offered to students of English literature, and the completest antidotes to pretense in it. How many a time, as a boy, have I pondered over this or that passage in the originals, from Shakespeare to Suckling, and then compared it with the italicized lines in his two volumes, to see whether I had hit upon the beauties; and how often, alas! I hit upon the blots!
It is curious that Leigh Hunt, whose style has been so severely handled (and, it must be owned, not without some justice) for its affectations, should have been so genuine (although always generous) in his criticisms. It was nothing to him whether an author was old or new; nor did he shrink from any literary comparison between two writers when he thought it appropriate (and he was generally right), notwithstanding all the age and authority that might be at the back of one of them. Thackeray, by the way, a very different writer and thinker, had this same outspoken honesty in the expression of his literary taste. In speaking of the hero of Cooper's five good novels—Leather-Stocking, Hawkeye, etc.—he remarks with quite a noble simplicity, "I think he is better than any of Scott's lot."
It is a "far cry" from the "Faerie Queen" to "Childe Harold," which, reckoning by years, is still a modern poem; yet I wonder how many persons under thirty—even of those who term it "magnificent"—have ever read "Childe Harold"? At one time it was only people under thirty who had read it; for poetry to the ordinary reader is the poetry that was popular in his youth—"no other is genuine."
"A dreary, weary poem called the 'Excursion,'
Written in a manner which is my aversion," is a couplet the frankness of which has always recommended itself to me (though I like the "Excursion"); but, except for the rhyme, it has a fatal facility of application to other long poems. Heaven forbid that I should "with shadowed hint confuse" the faith in a British classic; but, ye gods, how men have gaped (in private) over "Childe Harold"!
"Gil Bias," though not a native classic, is included in the articles of the British literary faith, not as a matter of pious opinion, but de fide—a necessity of intellectual salvation. I remember an interview I once had with a boy of letters concerning this immortal work. He is a well-known writer now, but at the time I speak of he was only budding and sprouting in the magazines—a lad of promise, no doubt, but given, if not to kick against authority, to question it, and, what was worse, to question me about it, in an embarrassing manner. The natural affability of my disposition had caused him, I suppose, to treat me as his father confessor in literature; and one of the sins of omission he confided to me was in connection with the divine Le Sage.
"I say—about 'Gil Bias,' you know Bias [a great critic of that day] was saying last night that, if he were to be imprisoned for life with only two books to read, he would choose the Bible and 'Gil Bias.'"
"It is very gratifying to me," said I, wishing to evade my young friend, and also because I had no love for Bias, "that he should have selected the Bible, and all the more so since I should never have expected it of him."
"Yes, papa" (that is what the young dog was wont to call me, though he was no son of mine—far from it); "but about 'Gil Bias'? Is it really the next best book? And after he had read it say, ten times would he not have been rather sorry that he had not chosen—well, Shakespeare, for instance?"
The picture of Bias with a long white beard, the growth of twenty years, reading that tattered copy of "Gil Bias" in his cell, almost affected me to tears, but I made shift to answer gravely: "Bias is a professional critic, and persons of that class are apt to be a little dogmatic and given to exaggeration. But 'Gil Bias' is a great work. As a picture of the seamy side of human life, of its vices and its weaknesses at least, it is unrivaled. The archbishop—"
"Oh, I know that archbishop—well" interrupted my young tormentor. "I sometimes think, if it hadn't been for that archbishop, we should never perhaps have heard of 'Gil Bias.'"
"Tchut, tchut!" said I; "you talk like a child."
"But to read it all through, papa three times, ten times, for all one's life? Poor Mr. Bias!"
"It is a matter of opinion, my dear boy," I said. "Bias has this great advantage over you in literary matters, that he knows what he is talking about, and if he was quite sure—" "Oh! but he was not quite sure; he was rather doubtful, he said, about one of the books."
"Not the Bible, I do hope?" said I fervently.
"No, about the other. He was not quite sure but that, instead of 'Gil Bias,' he ought to have selected 'Don Quixote.' Now, really that seems to me worse than 'Gil Bias.'"
"You mean less excellent," I rejoined; "you are too young to appreciate the full signification of 'Don Quixote.'"
The scoundrel murmured, "Do you mean to tell me that people read it when they are old?" but I pretended not to hear him. "We do not all of us," I went on, "know what is good for us. Sancho Panza's physician—"
"Oh! I know that physician—well, papa. I sometimes think, if it had not been for that physician, perhaps—"
"Hush!" I exclaimed authoritatively; "let us have no flippancy, I beg." And so, with a dead lift, as it were, I got rid of him. He left the room muttering, "But to read it through—three times, ten times, for all one's life?" And I was obliged to confess to myself that such a prolonged course of study, even of "Don Quixote," would have been wearisome.
Rabelais is another article of our literary faith that is certainly subscribed to much more often than believed in. In a certain poem of Mr. Browning's (I call it the "Burial of the Book," since the Latin name he has given it is unpronounceable, even if it were possible to recollect it), charmingly humorous, and which is also remarkable for impersonating an inanimate object in verse as Dickens does in prose, there occur these lines:
"Then I went indoors, brought out a loaf,
Half a cheese and a bottle of Chablis,
Yet I have known some wonder to be expressed (confidentially) as to where he found the "jolly chapter," and the looking for the beauties of Rabelais to be likened to searching in a huge bed of manure for a few heads of asparagus.
I have no quarrel with Bias and Company (though they stick at nothing, and will presently say that I don't care for these books myself), but I venture to think that they are wrong in making dogmas of what are, after all, but matters of literary taste; it is their vehemence and exaggeration which drive the weak to take refuge in falsehood.
A good woman in the country once complained of her step-son, "He will not love his learning, though I beats him with a jackchain"; and from the application of similar aids to instruction the same result takes place in London. Only here we dissemble and pretend to love it. It is partly in consequence of this that works, not only of acknowledged but genuine excellence, such as those I have been careful to select, are, though so universally praised, so little read. The poor student attempts them, but, failing—from many causes, no doubt, but also sometimes from the fact of their not being there—to find those unrivaled beauties which he has been led to expect in every sentence, he stops short, where he would otherwise have gone on. He says to himself, "I have been deceived," or "I must be a born fool"; whereas he is wrong in both suppositions. I am convinced that the want of popularity of Walter Scott among the rising generation is partly due to this extravagant laudation; and I am much mistaken if another great author, more recently deceased, will not in a few years be added to the ranks of those who are more praised than read from the same cause.
The habit of mere adhesion to received opinion in any matter is most mischievous, for it strikes at the root of independence of thought; and in literature it tends to make the public taste mechanical. It is very seldom that what is called the verdict of posterity (absurdly enough, for are not we posterity?) is ever reversed; but it has chanced to happen in a certain case quite lately. The production of "The Iron Chest" upon the stage has once more brought into fashion "Caleb Williams." Now, that is a work, though by no means belonging to the same rank as those to which I have referred, which has a fine old crusted reputation. Time has hallowed it. The great world of readers (who have never read it) used to echo the remark of Bias and Company, that this and that modern work of fiction reminded them—though at an immense distance, of course—of Godwin's masterpiece. I remember Le Fanu's "Uncle Silas," for example (from some similarity, more fanciful perhaps than real, in the isolation of its hero), being thus compared with it. Now, "Caleb Williams" is founded on a very fine conception—one that could only have occurred, perhaps, to a man of genius; the first part of it is well worked out, but toward the middle it grows feeble, and it ends in tediousness and drivel; whereas "Uncle Silas" is good and strong from first to last. Le Fanu has never been so popular as, in my humble judgment, he deserves to be, but of course modern readers were better acquainted with him than with Godwin. Yet nine out of ten were always heard repeating this cuckoo cry about the latter's superiority, until "The Iron Chest" came out, and fashion induced them to read him for themselves; which has very properly changed their opinion.
I remember, in my own case, that, from that mere reverence for authority which I hope I share with my neighbors, I used to speak of "Headlong Hall" and "Crotchet Castle"—both great favorites of our forefathers—with much respect, until one wet day in the country I found myself shut up with them. I won't say what I suffered; better judges of literature than myself admire them still, I know. I will only remark that I don't admire them. I don't say they are the dullest novels ever printed, because that would be invidious, and might do wrong to works of even greater pretensions; but to my mind they are dull.
When Dr. Johnson is free to confess that he does not admire Gray's "Elegy," and Macaulay to avow that he sees little to praise in Dickens and Wordsworth, why should not humbler folks have the courage of their own opinions? They can not possibly be more wrong than Johnson and Macaulay were, and it is surely better to be honest, though it may expose one to some ridicule, than to lie. The more we agree with the verdict of the generations before us on these matters, the more, it is quite true, we are likely to be right; but the agreement should be an honest one. At present very extensive domains in literature are, as it were, inclosed and denied to the public in respect to any free expression of their opinion. "They are splendid, they are faultless," cries the general voice, but the general eye has not beheld them. Nothing, of course, could be more futile than that, with every new generation, our old authors who have won their fame should be arraigned anew at the bar of public criticism; but, on the other hand, there is no reason why the mouths of us poor moderns should be muzzled, and still less that we "should praise with alien lips."
"Until Caldecott's charming illustrations of it made me laugh so much," said a young lady to me the other day, "I confess—though I know it's very stupid of me—I never saw much fun in 'John Gilpin.' She evidently expected a reproof, and when I whispered in her ear "Nor I," her lovely features assumed a look of positive enfranchisement.
"But am I right?" she inquired.
"You are certainly right, my dear young lady," said I, "not to pretend admiration where you don't feel it; as to liking ' John Gilpin,' that is a matter of taste. It has, of course, simplicity to recommend it; but in my own case, though I'm fond of fun, it has never evoked a smile. It has always seemed to me like one of Mr. Joe Miller's stories put into tedious verse."
I really almost thought (and hoped) that that young lady would have kissed me.
"Papa always says it is a free country," she exclaimed, "but I never felt it to be the case before this moment."
For years this beautiful and accomplished creature had locked this awful secret in her innocent breast—that she didn't see much fun in "John Gilpin." "You have given me courage," she said, "to confess something else. Mr. Caldecott has just been illustrating in the same charming manner Goldsmith's 'Elegy on a Mad Dog,' and—I'm very sorry—but I never laughed at that before, either. I have pretended to laugh, you know," she added, hastily and apologetically, "hundreds of times."
"I don't doubt it," I replied; "this is not such a free country as your father supposes."
"But am I right?"
"I say nothing about 'right,'" I answered, "except that everybody has a right to his own opinion. For my part, however, I think the ' Mad Dog ' better than 'John Gilpin' only because it is shorter."
Whether I was wrong or right in the matter is of no consequence even to myself; the affection and gratitude of that young creature would more than repay me for a much greater mistake, if mistake it is. She protests that I have emancipated her from slavery. She has since talked to me about all sorts of authors, from Sir Philip Sidney to Washington Irving, in a way that would make some people's blood run cold; but it has no such effect upon me—quite the reverse. Of Irving she naïvely remarks that his strokes of humor seem to her to owe much of their success to the rarity of their occurrence: the flashes of fun are spread over pages of dullness, which enhance them, just as a dark night is propitious to fireworks, or the atmosphere of the House of Commons, or a court of law, to a joke. She is often in error, no doubt, but how bright and wholesome such talk is as compared with the platitudes and commonplaces which one hears on all sides in connection with literature!
As a rule, I suppose, even people in society ("the drawing-rooms and the clubs") are not absolutely base, and yet one would really think so, to judge by the fear that is entertained by them of being natural. "I vow to Heaven," says the prince of letter-writers, "that I think the Parrots of Society are more intolerable and mischievous than its Birds of Prey. If ever I destroy myself, it will be in the bitterness of having those infernal and damnable 'good old times' extolled." One is almost tempted to say the same—when one hears their praises come from certain mouths—of the good old books. It is not every one, of course, who has an opinion of his own upon any subject, far less on that of literature, but every one can abstain from expressing an opinion that is not his own. If one has no voice, what possible compensation can there be in becoming an echo? No one, I conclude, would wish to see literature discoursed about in the same pinchbeck and affected style as are painting and music; yet that is what will happen if this prolific weed of sham admiration is permitted to attain its full growth.—Nineteenth Century.
- Since the above was written, my attention has been called to the following remark of De Quincey: "As must ever be the case with readers not sufficiently masters of a language to bring the true pretensions of a work to any test of feeling, they are for ever mistaking for some pleasure conferred by the writer, what is in fact the pleasure naturally attached to the sense of a difficulty overcome."
- I remember (when "I was but a little tiny boy") I thought that "the fringed curtains of thine eye advance," addressed by Prospero to Miranda, must needs be a very fine line; imagine, then, my confusion, on referring for corroboration to my "guide, philosopher, and friend," as he truly was, to find this passage: "Why Shakespeare should have condescended to the elaborate nothingness, not to say nonsense, of this metaphor (for what is meant by 'advancing curtains'?) I can not conceive. That is to say, if he did condescend; for it looks very like the interpolation of some pompous declamatory player. Pope has put it into his 'Treatise on the Bathos.'"
- The slang of art-talk has reached the "young men" in the furniture-warehouses. A friend of mine was recommended a sideboard the other day as not being a Chippendale, but "having a Chippendale feeling in it."