The School of Pantagruel
THE SCHOOL OF PANTAGRUEL
(Hujus secundae editionis XXV exemplaria sola impressa sunt)
Ovid's a rake, as half his verses show him,
THE SCHOOL OF PANTAGRUEL.
Although our modem literature is thoroughly purified from the taint of which I am about to speak, many of the older books infected by it still remain in our libraries, sheltering themselves under the indulgent title of "standard literature." In many cases, indeed, their state is one of passivity ('O respect his lordship's taste, and spare the golden bindings'); in most, the toleration they receive is mainly owing to ignorance or inconsideration of the evil with which they are charged. I believe an exposure of them might lead, in not a few quarters, to their banishment from the place of honour they now occupy in libraries; that it might bring us to consider their removal, at least from general reading, a thing to be desired.
I refer to the pollutions in literature that have arisen from a class of writers existing even in ancient times, but at a more recent date revived by Rabelais and Boccaccio, who may be considered as the founders of a distinct school, which in Italy and France, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, counted a very goodly array of disciples, and exercised an influence over the whole of European literature that it did not entirely lose until the Revolution of 1793. It may not inappropriately be called The School of Pantagruel. Pantagruel is the hero of the eccentric romance by which Rabelais is chiefly known, and many of the writers of his school have expressly claimed for themselves, and gloried in, the title of Pantagruelists. The book of which I speak is a satire on some of the absurdities of the Romish Church (for that Reformation which Luther in Germany and Henry VIII. in England subsequently accomplished many things were even then heralding—and of these not the least strange was the spectacle of a priest ridiculing that very Church of which he professed himself a son)—hidden under a crust of licentiousness—a licentiousness never equalled before or since—through fear of incurring danger by more open speaking.
O ye compilers of slang dictionaries, intellectual scavengers who wallow in the miry ways of literature—behold here an inexhaustible vocabulary for the enrichment of your volumes! Before you, indeed, the real pearls of learning and genius would be cast in vain.
Can I throw no counterbalancing laudation of the jocular curé into the opposite scale? His praise is hymned by loftier harps than mine —by loftier harps, too, than his own. Among his admirers, he can count better men than himself. Hood, with his accustomed humour, says that the history of Pantagruel "is equal to the best gruel, with rum in it." We will, however, dwell no longer on Rabelais: it would be a hopeless task to separate the pearls—though, certainly, very precious pearls are there—from the loathsome putrescence of his dunghill. Let him crow on it undisturbed before an audience who appreciate his melody.
Boccaccio, the Italian founder of the school we have designated from Rabelais, wrote in his youth (bitterly repenting it in his age) The Decameron (Il. Decamerone); consisting of a hundred short tales of love, so called—that sort of love, in fact, built on a violation of the seventh commandment, which he represents as an action not only quite worthy of, but highly becoming to a gentleman. Adultery and fornication,—fornication and adultery,—are the alpha and omega of his stories. Take up any portrait of Boccaccio: you observe at a glance the sensual character of his face. His life appears to have been truly reflected in his tales. The grace and elegance of his style and language we need not wish to dispute: polished libertinism will fortunately find few upholders in the present day,—
"Grieved to condemn, the Muse must still be just,
Boccaccio, indeed, as one of the architects and as the first adorner of the Italian language, and Boccaccio as the parent of that 'mud-volcanic explosion' already spoken of, are two different men. But great as are the philological services for which his countrymen are indebted to him, they constitute a claim to gratitude which is more than counterbalanced by the evil voice with which he swayed their minds towards effeminate weakness and base desire—by his blind and worse than blind guidance of the spiritually blind.
In 1348, when the plague raged in Florence, our author, describes the retirement to a neighbouring rural district of seven ladies and three gentlemen, connected by the ties of friendship. For the enlivenment of their solitude—ladies and gentlemen of our author's description considering rural solitude to be synonymous with Tartarean gloom—they form a scheme of each telling daily in succession some tale they may remember. Over this assembly the several members of it preside in turn as king or queen. This regal office invests its possessor with the prerogative of appointing the general subject for the narratives of the day. In all these subjects, however, there is a marked uniformity: throughout the book with a few honourable exceptions, such as the tale of
"The spectre huntsman of Onesti's line,"
The Decameron was translated into English, about the year 1570, by William Paynter, who published it under the title of The Palace of Pleasure. How unlike in its pleasures to the ivory palaces stored with that myrrh and cassia with whose fragrance the garments of the Bridegroom are impregnated! I regret that such a work should have sullied the lustre of the great Elizabethan literature.
As there have been family editions of Shakespeare, of Massinger, of the Arabian Nights, so these judicious expurgators have tried their hands with the Decameron. Without entering into a minute examination of their labours, I think it will be quite safe to pronounce that, on the whole, they have failed, and must necessarily fail. Boccaccio's tales are exotics which cannot thrive in a foreign soil, unless they are "fed with careful dirt."
Leaving Rabelais and Boccaccio, and passing by altogether Ariosto, Aretino, and Bandello—the first too well-known to be dwelt on here, and the others too little for it to be necessary to rake-up their forgotten indecencies—we will now turn to some of their followers in England and France. To the latter country let us first direct our attention.
Passing over Verville, whose Moyen de Parvenir, though Sterne has borrowed from it largely, is now almost forgotten, we come to Margaret of Navarre, who wrote, in early life, a collection of tales on a plan similar to that of Boccaccio, and, in imitation of the title of her worthy teacher's work, called it The Heptameron (L'Heptameron). Afterwards she repudiated all this and became of the 'melodiously-pious' sort, supporter of the Reformation, friend of Calvin, &c. These tales were not published in her life-time; but after her death, a friend of hers into whose hands they had fallen, thought fit to embalm her memory by giving them to the world. Alas!
"The evil that we do lives after us,
The prose imitator of Boccaccio was to be succeeded by an imitator who should call in the additional embellishment of verse. Jean de la Fontaine, author of Fables well known, and used largely in schools, published also, about the year 1670, a collection of short tales in verse, entitled Contes et Nouvelles en vers. They appeared in two series: the first consisted of translations from Boccaccio and Machiavelli; and the other contained the putrid products of the author's own brain, mixed with a few adaptations from The Heptameron and the Cent N'ouvelles Nouvelles; in which La Fontaine modernized the language and, in some cases, altered the plots; but carefully retained all the prurient imagery, and added some of his own to heighten it.
Let us pass now to Scarron—author of Le Roman Comique and Virgile Travesty; also of much else that has floated down to oblivion since his time. The former of these works contains the adventures of a company of strolling players, and has been pronounced to be very witty; but I think, unless we allow obscenity to be wit, it must forego that claim. The incidents of the tale are far too filthy to be alluded to; and I shall therefore forbear to quote, or even make reference to them. The other, Virgile Travesty, is, as the title denotes, a burlesque of the Æneid of Virgil, every noble thought in which is here, with a perseverance worthy of a better cause, turned into a joke or quibble. Nor is this its only evil feature. To transform the rich creations of a poet's fancy into ribaldry and jest—to metamorphose the harmonious expression of his grandest thoughts into clownish barbarism,—^this surely is offence enough against good taste. But it is not alone good taste which here receives a shock. Every opening which the original might give, or seem to give, for licentious description is seized upon; every page is more or less mud-bespattered. A third work, the Romans Tragi-comiques is neither better nor worse; what has been said of the Roman Comique applies equally to them. As the title indicates, these tales are meant to be of a gloomier cast; but the "comic" parts seem to me infinitely the most tragical.
A little before the time of Scarron and La Fontaine, a collection of verses culled from the portfolios of various noted authors of the time had been published under, the title of Le Cabinet Satyrique, The contents of these volumes, which, I am sorry to say, have lately been reprinted in Belgium by a publisher of the Holywell-street stamp, are even worse than those of the works I have just noticed. All decency—all delicate reticence—is thrown aside, and the grossest expressions are used to convey the grossest imaginations.
I have purposely mentioned this work out of its chronological order, inasmuch as it may be supposed to have immediately suggested the songs and ballads of Rochester, D'Urfey, and others, of whom in passing to England, I am about to speak. Without pausing, then, to examine that off-shoot of the Pantagruelist school in France which, in the middle of the eighteenth century,connecting itself with the Sentimentalists, headed by Rousseau, became still more dangerous because it issued forth in sheep's clothing, and, like the bright wisp, allured its follower to a dreary waste of bog and mire; let us proceed to its disciples in England, whose names and whose writings are more " familiar in our mouths."
The school of Pantagruel, like most other schools, has had its fluctuations of popular favour, popular indifference, and popular aversion. In the time of Charles the second, it was at its height in public favour in England. A dissolute court begot a dissolute populace, and mud-literature rose proportionally in estimation.
Demand proverbially creates supply. The Pantagruelists, who as yet had received few marks of English esteem, and who had, indeed, no great English representative—unless the Canterbury Tales oblige us to include reluctantly in their list the name of our sweet Chaucer—at length, emerging from the cloud, saw their literature suddenly coming into request. There were not found wanting men who set about diligently to produce an abundant supply. Among the earliest results were a translation of Rabelais by Sir Thomas Urquehart,and a translation of Scarron's Comic Romance by an unknown "hand." Of Virgile Travesty also, an imitation by Charles Cotton, the associate of Walton, was published.
I have dated the birth of this school in England as taking place at the beginning of the latter half of the seventeenth century, and not in the time of Ben Jonson and Shirley. For I cannot agree with those who, applying a microscopic sight to the past, and judging of its refinement by the refinement of the present, discover all manner of abominations in the Elizabethan dramatists. They certainly call by their names things which have since become unmentionable; they use expressions which have now grown obsolete; but in all this there is no pruriency, no pandering to the bad passions of our nature. I find no impurity— only the warmth of a rich imagination—in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, I do not find the prose writers anterior to 1650 full of passages only to be indicated by asterisks: I think the asterisks do more harm than the rude but forcible and well-meant passages omitted. Moreover the same process might, with equal reason, be applied to the Old Testament, its writers being especially addicted to calling a spade a spade; and thereby many of its most telling rebukes of sin would be lost to us. We should then have an Abridgment of the Pentateuch for family reading; and the Proverbs of Solomon would dwindle down to half their present number.
I have thought it a fact not unworthy of note, and one suggesting strange and even mournful memories,that Milton's Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester's Poems appeared at about the same time. The height of purity and the abyss of obscenity honoured and disgraced the same age. Which of the two had the choice of the 'merry monarch' in whose reign they were published, it is not difficult to imagine. I should rate, however, both his merriment and his taste at very small value, and happily another prince, "Prince Posterity," has long since reversed his decision.
In turning, for a moment, from Rochester to Milton, we emerge from a pestilential atmosphere into purest air. Nothing base or dishonourable had a dwelling in that lofty mind:
Macaulay, speaking of the profound immorality which distinguished the literature of the Restoration, mentions Waller, Cowley, and Butler as "exempt from the general contagion." "A mightier poet," he continues, "tried at once by pain, danger, poverty, obloquy and blindness, meditated, undisturbed by the obscene tumult which raged all around him, a song so sublime and so holy that it would not have misbecome the lips of those ethereal Virtues, whom he saw with that inner eye which no calamity could darken, flinging down on the jasper pavement their crowns of amaranth and gold."
Of all the English poets, indeed, Milton was perhaps least affected by the influence of the school of Pantagruel. No trace of its operation is perceptible throughout his writings. Those writings and the life of their author form an oasis in the dreary desert of that epoch. Milton, in his youth, saw, instead of kings and heroes, 'phantasms' and 'histrios' everywhere around him. The strong force of Elizabeth's reign had passed. Bacon, Cecil, and Shakespeare were departed. In the King then seated on the throne, he saw nothing which he could reverence, nothing to which he could cling. Nor could his fealty be given to Charles's adherents. In such men as Clarendon and Laud, what could he see of noble and good? When Cromwell emerged from obscurity, he beheld something real and true. With that reality and that truth he connected himself. He took the only side which an earnest man could take in those times. Bravely and nobly he waged war with his pen for the cause he had espoused; faithfully and truly he taught the mentally blind; till on himself fell a physical blindness, and the brighter period of his life passed away, bearing him to "evil days and evil tongues."
"Yet," he says, in his sonnet to Cyriac Skinner:—
—"yet I argue not
And now a very different picture presents itself. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, was a chosen companion and favourite of Charles the second. We know the wise old proverb about birds of a feather. I think it was here exemplified,
"Nature form'd the poet for the king."
Those who have not seen the uncastrated edition of Rochester's poems can, I suppose, form no adequate conception of what they are. Nor is it necessary that they should. Enough remains in the later editions, from which the worst matter is expunged, to warn any one not to enter upon a further perusal.
Rochester's life was consistent with his writings. Out of the abundance of his heart his mouth spoke. To apply to him the words in which Mr. Carlyle describes the Prince de Rohan, he was "a debauched, merely libidinous mortal, lying there quite helpless—dissolute (as we well say)." He used various disguises in carrying on his intrigues, assuming the appearance of a quack doctor, or any other character that his fertile imagination suggested. In this employment—politely called "intrigue," but for which I might use a more expressive name—he spent all his years from youth upwards. He died comparatively young; and no wonder: his constitution must have been impaired by his excesses. On his death-bed, and during the last days of his life, it appears that he expressed contrition for his errors to Burnet, who afterwards published an account of their conversations under the title of Some Passages of the Life and Death of John, Earl of Rochester. Johnson, being asked on one occasion whether a good life of Rochester had been written, replied, not perhaps without a latent meaning beyond that which appears on the surface,—"Why, sir, we have a good death, but there is no life."
Some of the poems of Oldham, his contemporary, stand alone in their nastiness. Rochester had at least that last miserable remnant of decency which prompted him to indicate his foulest words by a dash, or by the initial and final letter: Oldham gives them in full. Such language is now happily confined to the oyster-women of Billinsgate—Oldham is their representative man.
I now come to Thomas, or—as he was familiarly called by his contemporaries—Tom D'Urfey. This individual managed, by dint of life-long labour, to write six large volumes of impure songs, which he styled Pills to purge Melancholy The melancholy which they could purge must have been of a peculiar kind,
"Of Cerberus, and blackest Midnight, born."
In a well-regulated mind, indeed, they would tend rather to create than to dissipate that feeling. Mere quack medicines, I fear, these pills must turn out; melancholic minds finding relief from them must be of a nature very different from his who cried out of the depths of his broken spirit, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." This is the purgation of him "whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor."
Sir Charles Sedley may be named here as the author of two volumes of Miscellanies, of which the distinguishing characteristic is their licentiousness;—though the song beginning
"Love yet has something of the sea
shows that he was capable of better things. The particulars of the disgraceful prank which history records of him are very generally known: it is unnecessary to repeat them here. Of Sir George Etherege, another knightly versifier of the same order, it will suffice to give only the name. These were not chevaliers sans reproche.
The dramatists of this period must not pass without mention: I will first notice Wycherley and Congreve. Each of these authors wrote four comedies, all of which were acted and applauded; and their representation was witnessed not only by the fathers, but by the mothers and daughters of that time. And yet throughout these eight dramas there are not two consecutive pages which even a male audience of the present day would suffer. They are full of allusions which would excite indignation in every virtuous mind, and bring a blush to every modest cheek.
Of the two writers I have named, Congreve was the most witty and brilliant. His style is sparkling and effervescent; as different from the solid and weighty diction of the Elizabethan dramatists as champagne is from port. I think we English have a preference for the Lusitanian grape.
"The wits of Charles found easier ways to fame,
Wycherley's writing was slow and laboured: many of his scenes are adapted from French plays. His humour was soon exhausted; all that he had to impart to the world is imparted in his four comedies: base coin enough, but undoubtedly showing the cleverness of the coiner. To his other writings, however, even this dubious praise cannot be accorded. His verses are feeble as well as obscene; and Pope, to whom Wycherley in his old age confided the task of their correction, was obliged almost to remodel the majority of them previous to their publication.
The talent of Congreve, on the other hand, was exuberant and versatile. Besides his four comedies he produced a tragedy to which Johnson has accorded high praise, and two masques. He could write elegant stanzas as well as witty dramas, and his prefaces and dedications—as also his reply to Collier— display an excellence and facility of prose composition that Wycherley—judging from his letters to Pope—failed to attain.
Lord Macaulay, in his essay on the Comic Dramatists of the Restoration, has, from want of space, reluctantly omitted Vanbrugh and Farquhar. He says they are "not men to be hastily dismissed." At any rate, we will not here fall into the opposite error of Madame de Genlis, who in reprehending the licence of the English drama, gives a detailed outline of the plots of all the worst plays, Farquhar's Trip to the Jubilee among the number. We deprecate altogether this 'index-saving' system.
I think Farquhar much on a par with Congreve and Wycherley; a little less witty perhaps than the former, and a little less obscene than the latter. But to Sir John Vanbrugh I must devote several pages. Most of you will have heard of his architectural talent; perhaps nearly the greatest in England at that time, but used, like his other talent, only in an amateur way. He was neither an architect by profession, nor an author by profession; but not the less was he excellent both in authorship and architecture.
He was born in London, in the Annus Mirabilis, 1666; he himself, perhaps, not one of its least wonders, and, at any rate, destined to excel their poet in his dramatic walk. For Dryden's comedies have no other resemblance to those of Vanbrugh but their lax morality. I have not deemed it worth while to devote here any especial notice to them, and I have so high an opinion of him as a poet (Milton himself confessed Dryden to be a good verse-writer), that I do not wish to drag his delinquencies before the public gaze. Let his loose plays, and his loose translation of Juvenal, rest in the happy oblivion to which they have long been consigned.
This, however, is a digression. To return to Vanbrugh. He was of Dutch extraction: his father, Giles Vanbrugh, a London merchant, was descended from a long line of merchants at Antwerp. The family came to England in the time of Good Queen Bess; they had become Protestants, and not receiving toleration in their native country, sought and found shelter here, as so many others have done.
When his son attained the age of nineteen, Mr. Giles Vanbrugh sent him to France, where he passed several years and probably obtained that knowledge of the French drama which he afterwards put to such good use. His comedies (not including Æsop which is only a translation from Boursart, and to my mind a dull performance) are six in number. 1. The Relapse, acted at Drury Lane, in 1696; 2. The Provoked Wife, written before The Relapse, but not brought out till 1697, when it was performed in Lincoln's Inn Fields. 3. The False Friend, 1702; to which succeeded 4. The Confederacy, an adaptation of the Bourgeoises à la mode of D'Ancourt. The last acted in his life-time was 5. The Mistake, the original of which was Le Depit Amoureux of Molière. After his death appeared 6. The Provoked Husband which he had left incomplete under the title of "A Journey to London," and to which Cibber gave the last touches and the title. By the bye, this joint composition has done more to hand down Colley Cibber's name to posterity than any of the performances in which he stands entirely on his own legs. But he has told us that, perched on the eagle's soaring wing the lowly linnet loves to sing.
Vanbrugh died on the 26th of March, 1726, sixty years old. He was buried in the family vault under the church of St. Stephen, Walbrook.
It was in the drawing of female character that Vanbrugh excelled. Berinthia, in The Relapse whom the heroine of the play admits to be "much handsomer" than herself, is one of the most deliciously-drawn women in modern drama or fiction. Then there is Lady Brute, the provoked wife, and her maiden friend: their conversation is loose, it is true, and the wife does not teach the unmarried woman very good lessons; yet there is a freedom in their sprightliness from all such obtrusive filth as Wycherley's. Do not understand me as recommending to you the works of Vanbrugh; but I do not think he has done, or can do, much harm. At least he was a gentleman, and a man not without deep and true feeling—stunted by adverse circumstances. And this penetrates all his writings—a quiet leaven leavening the whole lump.
Of Otway, Shadwell, Aphra Behn and several others of inferior talent, who follow in the wake of Wycherley and Congreve, I have not space to speak. If obscenity, with wit as an ally, produced a result so little to be admired, obscenity and dulness combined must be indeed contemptible. Let the Dunciad bear these smaller fry to their own Lethean stream. There may be something to be said for Champagne; but we do not want gooseberry-wine.
I now come to a very important section of our subject—to that large majority of the English novelists of the eighteenth century who were, in a greater or less degree, disciples of the school of Pantagruel. The tendency of some of De Foe's fictions is very questionable; but his aim was always virtuous and his free descriptions are to be attributed to the inferior delicacy of the times: we must not, I think, include him in our list; and, in any case, his Robinson Crusoe—so sweet, so simple, so pure—should cover a multitude of sins.
I consider this part of our subject especially important because the writers whom it includes have obtained a more extended acceptation—their works being more generally received as standard literature—than most of the others I have mentioned. Consequently, the evil influence they have exercised has been considerably greater, both in degree and amount. Rochester, Sedley, and D'Urfey have long been read only by the few; but Swift, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne still find readers among the many.
Although I include the name of Swift, let me not be understood to speak of him depreciatingly. Far be it from me to do so. The Pantagruelism of Swift is of a very different kind from that of the authors whose names I have connected with his. That he
"Laugh'd and shook in Rabelais' easy-chair,"
is as unjust an imputation as could well be made, and I wonder that Pope, whose discrimination was generally more accurate, should have lent his authority to such a mistake. Swift inculated noble lessons, the presence of which was clear in every page he wrote, however defiled by the impurity of his unfortunate system. However unpleasing the images he may use, in no case can his writing be called prurient. It is true that he gives the whole of a picture; that he does not suppress, or throw into the shade, any revolting detail it may possess—like Hogarth, whose pictures any man may see and admire in these months. Both men refused to call evil good, or to say to evil-doers, 'Ye shall not surely die.' Like Hogarth again, Swift sometimes chooses a subject of which the total effect is necessarily revolting, but never with the view to inflame any morbid imagination, or to suggest any impure thought, in the mind of his reader. In utter scorn of the corruption which he described, in utter contempt of the weakness which he brought to light, that strong mind wrote. Under his keen castigation how terrible must it have been to writhe! I think that in our noble Carlyle we find an equal strength of mind, an equal scorn of falseness and feebleness, sweetened and modulated by a purer mode of conveying the truths he has to teach.
That the author of "Gulliver" did himself teach many truths, though in his own way, who can doubt? I recognise in him an unflinching champion of right exposing and battling with much sickening wrong: the true ore everywhere pierces and glistens through the incrustation of baser matter. The apostolical hint concerning some classes of evildoers, "It is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret," although it has happily in our own day received a more general recognition, was too little regarded in that of Swift, Even the high intentions of satire are no longer held to be an excuse for the introduction of impure thoughts.
This is the only blame that can attach to Swift, and it attaches in a much higher degree to Juvenal, to Martial, and to Petronius Arbiter. After all, he was infinitely the purest spirit of that age to whose influence the faults of his writing are mainly attributable; purer than Prior, whose poems, whatever Dr. Johnson may say, are certainly not a lady's book; purer than his friend Gay, the author of The Beggar's Opera; who, like La Fontaine, was also a school-fabulist, and whom the worthy and the good (?) remembering, are to strike their pensive bosoms.
For my own part, I wish the noble Dean of St. Patrick's had had his expectation realised;—I wish that he had been made a bishop; and I think he would have been very far the best at that time on the bench. Think of all his great and versatile powers,
"Dean, Drapier, Bickerstaff, or Gulliver."
Good Churchman, far-sighted politician, keen satirist. Pure in life, uncorrupted in opinions, rebuking spiritual wickedness in high and low places. A whole, if not a perfect man.
Fielding and Smollett, in literature, remind me of Salvator and Wouvermans, in painting, as characterised by Mr. Ruskin. The former seems to me to be a lost spirit, giving here and there traces and indications of something higher and purer from which he has swerved: the latter seems utterly vulgar, and incapable of noble thought. As Salvator, through his deep prostration of intellect, shows at intervals a temporary striving, more or less successful, after loftier achievement; so Fielding intersperses with his more hopeless and dreary pages, gleams of truer insight and holier desire. Again: as Wouvermans is sunk in complete selfishness, and, with entire satisfaction, paints men occupied in no higher employments than those of drinking, smoking, and card-playing; so Smollett never rises, and seeks not to rise, from the slough of filth in which he wallows.
Poor Fielding! He seems to me, of all the great writers with whom I am acquainted, to have stood so peculiarly alone. Other literary men have had friends numerous and kind among their own brethren. Even Savage had a companion—and what a companion!—in his dreary night-walks. But Fielding had few friends and no companions. He was the contemporary of both Pope and Johnson—two men of pre-eminent catholicity of heart—but we hear of no intimacy, or even acquaintance, subsisting between them. Neither the little man of Twickenkam, nor the big man of Bolt Court, held out to him the right hand of fellowship; though we do know that the latter sat-up all night once to read his Amelia, Remember with what a superb disdain Horace Walpole writes of him. "Had your brother been bred in a stable," said Richardson to Fielding's sister, "we might have understood," &c, &c. Unsavoury evidently to the printer-novelist's olfactory nerves is this Fielding! He died, too, far away from his country and what friends he had, at Lisbon, whither he had gone to recruit his broken health. I think of him with a feeling of deep pity, and with sorrow not unmingled with gratitude.
Fielding's History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, was first published in 1749. It has survived its probation of a century, and will, I think, continue to live. That it is a great, a very great work who can deny? First of all novels in artistic execution; second only to Don Quixote in freshness and vigour. But there our admiration pauses. We admit the charm of the captivating page, the ceaseless interest with which, once and again, through long sunny hours of summer, under the shade of venerable trees or overlooking clear waters, we read it, and are lost to all else but its perusal: if, however, we look for anything more than mere amusement, we find it wanting. Nor (and herein lies a graver and more positive charge, sin of commission as well as omission, for which alone Fielding is cited to our bar)—is even the amusement which we obtain wholly harmless. Tom Jones, even if scarcely deserving Colonel Newcomers severe invective, passes through scenes which, to say the least, are very unsuited to modern taste, and expressions are used which could not now be read aloud. The readers of Tom Jones, and, of Fielding's other novels, must indeed, in any case, be confined to the male sex.
Concerning Smollett our feeling is very different. For Humphrey Clinker we might, indeed, pardon him; but in Peregrine Pickle his obscenity is wholly inexcusable. Surely the full extent of depravation in this book is unknown, or it would not take a place in so many libraries. What a hero for a novel is Peregrine! Is he brave, noble, just in any particular throughout the book? Is he not debased, selfish, sensual in every incident in which he takes a part? The same is the case, though in a less virulent degree, in Roderick Random, In the whole range of literature, I know of no two books more pernicious than these, from the attraction which they undeniably possess for most of us in a certain immature stage of our mental development.
Filth is the pervading principle—the very essence—of Smollett's novels. Take the filth from them, and what remains? Compare any of his descriptions of the marriage of his hero and heroine with Mr. Tennyson's treatment of the same subject in the concluding section of In Memoriam, where speaking of his sister and her husband, he implores the rising moon to
"— touch with shade the bridal doors,
Contrast, I say, the above noble passage, or any of St. Paul's delicate admonitions regarding marriage, with Smollett's prurient thoughts on that subject, and you will see how what is in itself pure and "honourable" may receive an impure colour from the mind which views it.
Roderick Random, Smollett's first novel, was published in 1748; Peregrine Pickle, in 1751; Humphrey Clinker, his latest, in 1771. Shortly after its appearance, in the same year, "the world," says Sir Walter Scott, "lost Tobias Smollett."
In the meantime another novelist of the same school had arisen in the person of the Reverend Laurence Sterne. Tristram Shandy had been given to the public by occasional instalments, and had gained immense popularity. Sterne was, in the strictest sense of the word, a Pantagruelist; he imitated the style, and borrowed many of the thoughts of Rabelais, Verville, and the other early writers of that school. But his obscenity often consists as much in what is implied as in what is said. "There is not a page in Sterne's writing but has something that were better away, a latent corruption, a hint as of an impure presence." Wherever we turn we are met by the anguis in herba. With this covert filth his works begin and end. The first sentence of Tristram Shandy and the last of the Sentimental Journey are alike corrupt.
Sterne wrote several volumes of sermons, the publication of which, under the title of Sermons by Mr. Yorick, he alternated with those of Tristram Shandy, It is observable that his resemblance to Rabelais was the more complete on account of the clerical office which he held, and the infidelity with which he discharged its duties. His life was in all respects a counterpart of his works. Need I say more of him? He has met with unsparing castigation from a great satirist of our own day—from one ever ready to say a kind and merciful word on behalf of struggling weakness or failing strength; but equally ready to apply the lash to baseness, selfishness and cowardice.
Our task is now at an end. In England, after the death of Sterne, the school of Pantagruel gradually died out, nor has it since re-arisen in any very threatening shape. Our literature and, I hope, our lives are purer than those of our ancestors. Yet these works, read and admired by them in a less cultivated age, still, unfortunately, retain their place in our libraries; nay, are in some cases edited and reprinted with a care that might more worthily have been bestowed on a better subject.
In France, indeed, this class of writing has revived, and flourishes to no inconsiderable extent. The character of the French novels, and, indeed, of the French poetry, of the present day is too well known to require much comment. Three authors only I will name:—Béranger, the noble Béranger, the exquisite chansonnier and faithful eulogist of Napoleon —like our own great song-writer,. Burns, not entirely free from the corrupting influence;—Paul de Kock, who, with his exhaustless humour and kindly sympathy with life of all grades, might have done better things: and Honoré de Balzac, whose Contes Drolatiques—written not only in the style, but in the vieux langage of Rabelais—are, as he notifies in the title, expressly "for the diversion of Pantagruelists, and no others (pour l'esbattement des Pantagruelistes, et non aultres)" I hope the limitation will be observed, and then, I think, these tales will find few readers on this side of the Channel.
It will be seen that I am by no means one of those who consider that no harm may be derived from the perusal of an impure book, unless the impurity be already inherent in the reader's mind. Moreover, the question of contagion aside, we have nothing to do with these diseased forms of literature. Literature, fulfilling its noble and real office, seeks, like the Spirit of Truth, to lead us into all truth. Let us seek after truth, and truth only, neither turning to the right hand nor to the left, and ever remembering the apostolic injunction:— "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying."
- Young tells us the same of Chaucer and La Fontaine:—
"Fontaine and Chancer, dying, wish'd unwrought
The sprighthest efforts of their wanton thought."— Epistles.
- Of her poems,—published under the title of Marguerites de Marguerite—much in Madame Guion's style, with less, however, of asceticism, I hope to speak elsewhere.
- History of England, Vol. i., (1848) pp. 398—9.
- "A single chapter of Isaiah," says Professor Stanley, "made a penitent believer of the profligate Rochester,"—Lectures on the Eastern Church, Introd. iii. 76. Johnson has himself supplied, in his Lives of the Poets, the want of a concise biography of this nobleman.
- Witty, that is, as wit goes: "what," as Carlyle says (Frederick, i.204), "is called 'wit' in modern times."
- Johnson—Prologue at the opening of the Theatre Royal (Poems, 1785, pp. 49—50).
- Johnson said there was nothing finer in Shakespeare than the lines in The Mourning Bride, beginning
- Les Souvenirs de Felicie L *** pp. 29—42.
- The reader will recall the passage in Don Juan referred to.
- Poor Æsop! One can't help shedding a tear over that delight of one's youth, now a pleasant vision departed. The age that has assigned to ten—twenty—fifty different ballad-writers the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey; that has asked 'Was Lord Bacon the author of Shakespeare's Plays?' (the old "Garth did not write his own Dispensary") has discovered that there was no such person as Æsop after all, and that the fables which have so long gone under his name were written by one Babrius.
- See Pope's Epitaph in Westminster Abbey.
- Modern Painter's, Vol. v., 1860.
- Pope, b. 1688; d. 1744 (two years after the publication of Joseph Andrews); Fielding, 1707—1764; Johnson, 1709—1784.
- His account of the voyage, published after his death—full as it is of his best humour—is infinitely sad. Every page must have cost a pang to his weary heart. The little volume (which is in all respects unexceptionable) ought to be reprinted: is is one of the best pieces of autobiographic writing in the English language.
- W. M. Thackeray: Lectures on the English Humourists.,
- "I wish either my father or mother, or indeed both of them," &c. —Tristram Shandy Vol. l, p. 1. "So that when I" &c.—Sentimental Journey, Vol. 2, last page.
- See the song, When Januar' Wind. Of Béranger, see Le Senateur, and not a few songs in the volume (Chansons, par M—un tel) published anonymously in 1816.
[The first sketch of this essay was written in Glocestershire during the months of October and November, 1860, and read before an amateur literary association in December of the same year. Immediately after it was printed, but suppressed before publication. In the present edition numerous alterations have been made, and much new matter has been added.]
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|