Books and men/The Decay of Sentiment
THE DECAY OF SENTIMENT.
That useful little phrase, "the complexity of modern thought," has been so hard worked of late years that it seems like a refinement of cruelty to add to its obligations. Begotten by the philosophers, born of the essayists, and put out to nurse among the novel-writers, it has since been apprenticed to the whole body of scribblers, and drudges away at every trade in literature. How, asks Vernon Lee, can we expect our fiction to be amusing, when a psychological and sympathetic interest has driven away the old hard-hearted spirit of comedy? How, asks Mr. Pater, can Sebastian Van Stork make up his mind to love and marry and work like ordinary mortals, when the many-sidedness of life has wrought in him a perplexed envy of those quiet occupants of the churchyard, "whose deceasing was so long since over"? How, asks George Eliot, can Mrs. Pullet weep with uncontrolled emotion over Mrs. Sutton's dropsy, when it behooves her not to crush her sleeves or stain her bonnet-strings? The problem is repeated everywhere, either in mockery or deadly earnestness, according to the questioner's disposition, and the old springs of simple sentiment are drying fast within us. It is heartless to laugh, it is foolish to cry, it is indiscreet to love, it is morbid to hate, and it is intolerant to espouse any cause with enthusiasm.
There was a time, and not so many years ago, when men and women found no great difficulty in making up their minds on ordinary matters, and their opinions, if erroneous, were at least succinct and definite. Nero was then a cruel tyrant, the Duke of Wellington a great soldier, Sir Walter Scott the first of novelists, and the French Revolution a villainous piece of business. Now we are equally enlightened and confused by the keen researches and shifting verdicts with which historians and critics seek to dispel this comfortable frame of darkness. Nero, perhaps, had the good of his subjects secretly at heart when he expressed that benevolent desire to dispatch them all at a blow, and Robespierre was but a practical philanthropist, carried, it may be, a little too far by the stimulating influences of the hour. "We have palliations of Tiberius, eulogies of Henry VIII., and devotional exercises to Cromwell," observes Mr. Bagehot, in some perplexity as to where this state of things may find an ending; and he confesses that in the mean time his own original notions of right and wrong are growing sadly hazy and uncertain. Moreover, in proportion as the heavy villains of history assume a chastened and ascetic appearance, its heroes dwindle perceptibly into the commonplace, and its heroines are stripped of every alluring grace; while as for the living men who are controlling the destinies of nations, not even Macaulay's ever useful schoolboy is too small and ignorant to refuse them homage. Yet we read of Scott, in the zenith of his fame, standing silent and abashed before the Duke of Wellington, unable, and perhaps unwilling, to shake off the awe that paralyzed his tongue. "The Duke possesses every one mighty quality of the mind in a higher degree than any other man either does or has ever done!" exclaimed Sir Walter to John Ballantyne, who, not being framed for hero-worship, failed to appreciate his friend's extraordinary enthusiasm. While smile at the sentiment,—knowing, of course, so much better ourselves,—we feel an envious admiration of the happy man who uttered it.
There is a curious little incident which Mrs. Lockhart used to relate, in after years, as a proof of her father's emotional temperament, and of the reverence with which he regarded all that savored of past or present greatness. When the long-concealed Scottish regalia were finally brought to light, and exhibited to the public of Edinburgh, Scott, who had previously been one of the committee chosen to unlock the chest, took his daughter to see the royal jewels. She was then a girl of fifteen, and her nerves had been so wrought upon by all that she had heard on the subject that, when the lid was opened, she felt herself growing faint, and withdrew a little from the crowd. A light-minded young commissioner, to whom the occasion suggested no solemnity, took up the crown, and made a gesture as if to place it on the head of a lady standing near, when Sophia Scott heard her father exclaim passionately, in a voice "something between anger and despair," "By G—, no!" The gentleman, much embarrassed, immediately replaced the diadem, and Sir Walter, turning aside, saw his daughter, deadly pale, leaning against the door, and led her at once into the open air. "He never spoke all the way home," she added, "but every now and then I felt his arm tremble; and from that time I fancied he began to treat me more like a woman than a child. I thought he liked me better, too, than he had ever done before."
The whole scene, as we look back upon it now, is a quaint illustration of how far a man's emotions could carry him, when they were nourished alike by the peculiarities of his genius and of his education. The feeling was doubtless an exaggerated one, but it was at least nobler than the speculative humor with which a careless crowd now calculates the market value of the crown jewels in the Tower of London. "What they would bring" was a thought which we may be sure never entered Sir Walter's head, as he gazed with sparkling eyes on the modest regalia of Scotland, and conjured up every stirring drama in which they had played their part. For him each page of his country's history was the subject of close and loving scrutiny. All those Davids, and Williams, and Malcolms, about whom we have an indistinct notion that they spent their lives in being bullied by their neighbors and badgered by their subjects, were to his mind as kingly as Charlemagne on his Throne of the West; and their crimes and struggles and brief glorious victories were part of the ineffaceable knowledge of his boyhood. To feel history in this way, to come so close to the world's actors that our pulses rise and fall with their vicissitudes, is a better thing, after all, than the most accurate and reasonable of doubts. I knew two little English girls who always wore black frocks on the 30th of January, in honor of the "Royal Martyr," and tied up their hair with black ribbons, and tried hard to preserve the decent gravity of demeanor befitting such a doleful anniversary. The same little girls, it must be confessed, carried Holmby House to bed with them, and bedewed their pillows with many tears over the heart-rending descriptions thereof. What to them were the "outraged liberties of England," which Mr. Gosse rather vaguely tells us tore King Charles to pieces? They saw him standing on the scaffold, a sad and princely figure, and they heard the frightened sobs that rent the air when the cruel deed was done. It is not possible for us now to take this picturesque and exclusive view of one whose shortcomings have been so vigorously raked to light by indignant disciples of Carlyle; but the child who has ever cried over any great historic tragedy is richer for the experience, and stands on higher ground than one whose life is bounded by the schoolroom walls, or who finds her needful stimulant in the follies of a precocious flirtation. What a charming picture we have of Eugénie de Guérin feeding her passionate little soul with vain regrets for the unfortunate family of Louis XVI. and with sweet infantile plans for their rescue. "Even as a child," she writes in her journal, "I venerated this martyr, I loved this victim whom I heard so much talked of in my family as the 21st of January drew near. We used to be taken to the funeral service in the church, and I gazed at the high catafalque, the melancholy throne of the good king. My astonishment impressed me with sorrow and indignation. I came away weeping over this death, and hating the wicked men who had brought it about. How many hours have I spent devising means for saving Louis, the queen, and the whole hapless family,—if I only had lived in their day. But after much calculating and contriving, no promising measure presented itself, and I was forced, very reluctantly, to leave the prisoners where they were. My compassion was more especially excited for the beautiful little Dauphin, the poor child pent up between walls, and unable to play in freedom. I used to carry him off in fancy, and keep him safely hidden at Cayla, and Heaven only knows the delight of running about our fields with a prince."
Here at least we see the imaginative faculty playing a vigorous and wholesome part in a child's mental training. The little solitary French girl who filled up her lonely hours with such pretty musings as these, could scarcely fail to attain that rare distinction of mind which all true critics have been so prompt to recognize and love. It was with her the natural outgrowth of an intelligence, quickened by sympathy and fed with delicate emotions. The Dauphin in the Temple, the Princes in the Tower, Marie Antoinette on the guillotine, and Jeanne d'Arc at the stake, these are the scenes which have burned their way into many a youthful heart, and the force of such early impressions can never be utterly destroyed. A recent essayist, deeply imbued with this good principle, has assured us that the little maiden who, ninety years ago, surprised her mother in tears, "because the wicked people had cut off the French queen's head," received from that impression the very highest kind of education. But this is object-teaching carried to its extremest limit, and even in these days, when training is recognized to be of such vital importance, one feels that the death of a queen is a high price to pay for a little girl's instruction. It might perhaps suffice to let her live more freely in the past, and cultivate her emotions after a less costly and realistic fashion.
On the other hand, Mr. Edgar Saltus, who is nothing if not melancholy, would fain persuade us that the "gift of tears," which Swinburne prized so highly and Mrs. Browning cultivated with such transparent care, finds its supreme expression in man, only because of man's greater capacity for suffering. Yet if it be true that the burden of life grows heavier for each succeeding generation, it is no less apparent that we have taught ourselves to stare dry-eyed at its blankness. An old rabbinical legend says that in Paradise God gave the earth to Adam and tears to Eve, and it is a cheerless doctrine which tells us now that both gifts are equal because both are valueless, that the world will never be any merrier, and that we are all tired of waxing sentimental over its lights and shadows. But our great-grandfathers, who were assuredly not a tender-hearted race, and who never troubled their heads about those modern institutions, wickedly styled by Mr. Lang "Societies for Badgering the Poor," cried right heartily over poems, and novels, and pictures, and plays, and scenery, and everything, in short, that their great-grandsons would not now consider as worthy of emotion. Jeffrey the terrible shed tears over the long-drawn pathos of little Nell, and has been roundly abused by critics ever since for the extremely bad taste he exhibited. Macaulay, who was seldom disposed to be sentimental, confesses that he wept over Florence Dombey. Lord Byron was strongly moved when Scott recited to him his favorite ballad of Hardyknute; and Sir Walter himself paid the tribute of his tears to Mrs. Opie's dismal stories, and Southey's no less dismal Pilgrimage to Waterloo. When Marmion was first published, Joanna Baillie undertook to read it aloud to a little circle of literary friends, and on reaching those lines which have reference to her own poems,
"When she the bold enchantress came,
With fearless hand, and heart in flame,"
the "uncontrollable emotion" of her hearers forced the fair reader to break down. In a modern drawing-room this uncontrollable emotion would probably find expression in such gentle murmurs of congratulation as "Very pretty and appropriate, I am sure," or "How awfully nice in Sir Walter to have put it in that way!"
Turn where we will, however, amid the pages of the past, we see this precious gift of tears poured out in what seems to us now a spirit of wanton profusion. Sterne, by his own showing, must have gone through life like the Walrus, in Through the Looking Glass,
"Holding his pocket handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes;"
and we can detect him every now and then peeping slyly out of the folds, to see what sort of an impression he was making. "I am as weak as a woman," he sighs, with conscious satisfaction, "and I beg the world not to smile, but pity me." Burns, who at least never cried for effect, was moved to sudden tears by a pathetic print of a dead soldier, that hung on Professor Fergusson's wall. Scott was always visibly affected by the wild northern scenery that he loved; and Erskine was discovered in the Cave of Staffa, "weeping like a woman," though, in truth, a gloomy, dangerous, slippery, watery cavern is the last place on earth where a woman would ordinarily stop to be emotional. She might perhaps cry with Sterne over a dead monk or a dead donkey,—he has an equal allowance of tears for both,—but once inside of a cave, her real desire is to get out again as quickly as possible, with dry skirts and an unbroken neck. It may be, however, that our degenerate modern impulses afford us no safe clue to those halcyon days when sentiment was paramount and practical considerations of little weight; when wet feet and sore throats were not suffered to intrude their rueful warnings upon the majesty of nature; when ladies, who lived comfortably and happily with the husbands of their choice, poured forth impassioned prayers, in the Annual Register, for the boon of indifference, and poets like Cowper rushed forward to remonstrate with them for their cruelty.
"Let no low thought suggest the prayer,
Oh! grant, kind Heaven, to me,
Long as I draw ethereal air,
wrote the author of The Task, in sober earnestness and sincerity.
"Then oh! ye Fair, if Pity's ray
E'er taught your snowy breasts to sigh,
Shed o'er my contemplative lay
The tears of sensibility,"
wrote Macaulay as a burlesque on the prevailing spirit of bathos, and was, I think, unreasonably angry because a number of readers, his own mother included, failed to see that he was in fun. Yet all his life this mocking critic cherished in his secret soul of souls a real affection for those hysterical old romances which had been the delight of his boyhood, and which were even then rapidly disappearing before the cold scorn of an enlightened world. Miss Austen, in Sense and Sensibility, had impaled emotionalism on the fine shafts of her delicate satire, and Macaulay was Miss Austen's sworn champion; but nevertheless he contrived to read and reread Mrs. Meek's and Mrs. Cuthbertson's marvelous stories, until he probably knew them better than he did Emma or Northanger Abbey. When an old edition of Santa Sebastiano was sold at auction in India, he secured it at a fabulous price,—Miss Eden bidding vigorously against him,—and he occupied his leisure moments in making a careful calculation of the number of fainting-fits that occur in the course of the five volumes. There are twenty-seven in all, so he has recorded, of which the heroine alone comes in for eleven, while seven others are distributed among the male characters. Mr. Trevelyan has kindly preserved for us the description of a single catastrophe, and we can no longer wonder at anybody's partiality for the tale, when we learn that "one of the sweetest smiles that ever animated the face of mortal man now diffused itself over the countenance of Lord St. Orville, as he fell at the feet of Julia in a death-like swoon." Mr. Howells would doubtless tell us that this is not a true and accurate delineation of real life, and that what Lord St. Orville should have done was to have simply wiped the perspiration off his forehead, after the unvarnished fashion of Mr. Mavering, in April Hopes. But Macaulay, who could mop his own brow whenever he felt so disposed, and who recognized his utter inability to faint with a sweet smile at a lady's feet, naturally delighted in Mrs. Cuthbertson's singularly accomplished hero. Swooning is now, I fear, sadly out of date. In society we no longer look upon it as a pleasing evidence of feminine propriety, and in the modern novel nothing sufficiently exciting to bring about such a result is ever permitted to happen. But in the good old impossible stories of the past it formed a very important element, and some of Mrs. Radcliffe's heroines can easily achieve twenty-seven fainting-fits by their own unaided industry. They faint at the most inopportune times and under the most exasperating circumstances: when they are running away from banditti, or hiding from cruel relatives, or shut up by themselves in gloomy dungeons, with nobody to look after and resuscitate them. Their trembling limbs are always refusing to support them just when a little activity is really necessary for safety, and, though they live in an atmosphere of horrors, the smallest shock is more than they can endure with equanimity. In the Sicilian Romance, Julia's brother, desiring to speak to her for a minute, knocks gently at her door, whereupon, with the most unexpected promptness, "she shrieked and fainted;" and as the key happens to be turned on the inside, he is obliged to wait in the hall until she slowly regains her consciousness.
Nothing, however, can mar the decorous sentimentality which these young people exhibit in all their loves and sorrows. Emily the forlorn "touched the chords of her lute in solemn symphony," when the unenviable nature of her surroundings might reasonably have banished all music from her soul; Theodore paused to bathe Adeline's hand with his tears, in a moment of painful uncertainty; and Hippolitus, who would have scorned to be stabbed like an ordinary mortal, "received a sword through his body,"—precisely as though it were a present,—"and, uttering a deep sigh, fell to the ground," on which, true to her principles, "Julia shrieked and fainted." We read of the Empress Octavia swooning when Virgil recited to her his description of the death of Marcellus; and we know that Shelley fainted when he heard Cristabel read; but Mrs. Radcliffe's heroines, though equally sensitive, are kept too busy with their own disasters to show this sympathetic interest in literature. Their adventures strike us now as being, on the whole, more amusing than thrilling; but we should remember that they were no laughing matter to the readers of fifty years ago. People did not then object to the interminable length of a story, and they followed its intricate windings and counter-windings with a trembling zest which we can only envy. One of the earliest recollections of my own childhood is a little book depicting the awful results of Mrs. Radcliffe's terror-inspiring romances upon the youthful mind; a well-intentioned work, no doubt, but which inevitably filled us with a sincere desire to taste for ourselves of these pernicious horrors. If I found them far less frightful than I had hoped, the loss was mine, and the fault lay in the matter-of-fact atmosphere of the modern nursery; for does not the author of the now forgotten Pursuits of Literature tell us that the Mysteries of Udolpho is the work of an intellectual giant?—"a mighty magician, bred and nourished by the Florentine muses in their sacred solitary caverns, amid the pale shrines of Gothic superstition, and in all the dreariness of enchantment."
That was the way that critics used to write, and nobody dreamed of laughing at them. When Letitia Elizabeth Landon poured forth her soul in the most melancholy of verses, all London stopped to listen and to pity.
"There is no truth in love, whate'er its seeming,
And Heaven itself could scarcely seem more true.
Sadly have I awakened from the dreaming
Whose charmed slumber, false one, was of you,"
wrote this healthy and heart-whole young woman; and Lord Lytton has left us an amusing account of the sensation that such poems excited. He and his fellow-students exhausted their ingenuity in romantic speculations concerning the unknown singer, and inscribed whole reams of fervid but indifferent stanzas to her honor. "There was always," he says, "in the reading-room of the Union, a rush every Saturday afternoon for the Literary Gazette, and an impatient anxiety to hasten at once to that corner of the sheet which contained the three magical letters L. E. L. All of us praised the verse, and all of us guessed the author. We soon learned that it was a female, and our admiration was doubled, and our conjectures tripled." When Francesca Carrara appeared, it was received with an enthusiasm never manifested for Pride and Prejudice, or Persuasion, and romantic young men and women reveled in its impassioned melancholy. What a pattering of tear-drops on every page! The lovely heroine—less mindful of her clothes than Mrs. Pullet—looks down and marks how the great drops have fallen like rain upon her bosom. "Alas!" she sighs, "I have cause to weep. I must weep over my own changefulness, and over the sweetest illusions of my youth. I feel suddenly grown old. Never more will the flowers seem so lovely, or the stars so bright. Never more shall I dwell on Erminia's deep and enduring love for the unhappy Tancred, and think that I too could so have loved. Ah! in what now can I believe, when I may not even trust my own heart?" Here, at least, we have unadulterated sentiment, with no traces in it of that "mean and jocular life" which Emerson so deeply scorned, and for which the light-minded readers of to-day have ventured to express their cheerful and shameless preference.
Emotional literature, reflecting as it does the tastes and habits of a dead past, should not stand trial alone before the cold eyes of the mocking present, where there is no sympathy for its weakness and no clue to its identity. A happy commonplaceness is now acknowledged to be, next to brevity of life, man's best inheritance; but in the days when all the virtues and vices flaunted in gala costume, people were hardly prepared for that fine simplicity which has grown to be the crucial test of art. Love, friendship, honor, and courage were as real then as now, but they asserted themselves in fantastic ways, and with an ostentation that we are apt to mistake for insincerity. When Mrs. Katharine Philips founded her famous Society of Friendship, in the middle of the seventeenth century, she was working earnestly enough for her particular conception of sweetness and light. It is hard not to laugh at these men and women of the world addressing each other solemnly as the "noble Silvander" and the "dazzling Polycrete;" and it is harder still to believe that the fervent devotion of their verses represented in any degree the real sentiments of their hearts. But Orinda, whose indefatigable exertions held the society together, meant every word she said, and credited the rest with similar veracity.
"Lucasia, whose harmonious state
The Spheres and Muses only imitate,"
is for her but a temperate expression of regard; and we find her writing to Mrs. Annie Owens—a most unresponsive young Welshwoman—in language that would be deemed extravagant in a lover:—
"I did not live until this time
Crowned my felicity,
When I could say without a crime,
I am not thine, but thee.
One wonders what portion of her heart the amiable Mr. Philips was content to occupy.
Frenchwomen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found their principal amusement in contracting, either with each other or with men, those highly sentimental friendships which were presumably free from all dross of earthly passion, and which rested on a shadowy basis of pure intellectual affinity. Mademoiselle de Scudéry delighted in portraying this rarefied intercourse between congenial souls, and the billing and cooing of Platonic turtle-doves fill many pages of her ponderous romances. Sappho and Phaon, in the Grand Cyrus, "told each other every particular of their lives," which must have been a little tedious at times and altogether unnecessary, inasmuch as we are assured that "the exchange of their thoughts was so sincere that all those in Sappho's mind passed into Phaon's, and all those in Phaon's came into Sappho's." Conversation under these circumstances would be apt to lose its zest for ordinary mortals, who value the power of speech rather as a disguise than as an interpretation of their real convictions; but it was not so with this guileless pair. "They understood each other without words, and saw their whole hearts in each other's eyes."
As for the great wave of emotionalism that followed in Rousseau's train, it was a pure make-believe, like every other sentiment that bubbled on the seething surface of French society. Avarice and honor alone were real. To live like a profligate and to die like a hero were the two accomplishments common to every grand seigneur in the country. For the rest, there was a series of fads,—simplicity, benevolence, philosophy, passion, asceticism; Voltaire one day, Rousseau the next; Arcadian virtues and court vices jumbled fantastically together; the cause of the people on every tongue, and the partridges hatching in the peasant's corn; Marie Antoinette milking a cow, and the infant Madame Royale with eighty nurses and attendants; great ladies, with jewels in their hair, on their bosoms, and on their silken slippers, laboriously earning a few francs by picking out gold threads from scraps of tarnished bullion; everybody anxiously asking everybody else, "What shall we do to be amused?" and the real answer to all uttered long before by Louis XIII., "Venez, monsieur, allons-nous ennuyer ensemble." Day and night are not more different than this sickly hothouse pressure and the pure emotion that fired Scott's northern blood, as he looked on the dark rain-swept hills till his eyes grew bright with tears. "We sometimes weep to avoid the disgrace of not weeping," says Rochefoucauld, who valued at its worth the facile sentimentality of his countrymen. Could he have lived to witness M. de Latour's hysterical transports on finding Rousseau's signature and a crushed periwinkle in an old copy of the Imitatio, the great moralist might see that his bitter truths have in them a pitiless continuity of adjustment, and fit themselves afresh to every age. What excitation of feeling accompanied the bloody work of the French Revolutionists! What purity of purpose! What nobility of language! What grandeur of device! What bottled moonshine everywhere! The wicked old world was to be born anew, reason was to triumph over passion; and self-interest, which had ruled men for six thousand years, was to be suddenly eradicated from their hearts. When the patriots had finished cutting off everybody else's head, then the reign of mutual tenderness would begin; the week—inestimable privilege!—would hold ten days instead of seven; and Frimaire and Floréal and Messidor would prove to the listening earth that the very names of past months had sunk into merited oblivion. Father Faber says that a sense of humor is a great help in the spiritual life; it is an absolute necessity in the temporal. Had the Convention possessed even the faintest perception of the ridiculous, this friendly instinct would have lowered their sublime heads from the stars, stung them into practical issues, and moderated the absurd delusions of the hour.
At present, however, the new disciples of "earnestness" are trying hard to persuade us that we are too humorous, and that it is the spirit of universal mockery which stifles all our nobler and finer emotions. We would like to believe them, but unhappily it is only to exceedingly strenuous souls that this lawless fun seems to manifest itself. The rest of us, searching cheerfully enough, fail to discover its traces. If we are seldom capable of any sustained enthusiasm, it is rather because we yawn than because we laugh. Unlike Emerson, we are glad to be amused, only the task of amusing us grows harder day by day; and Justin McCarthy's languid heroine, who declines to get up in the morning because she has so often been up before, is but an exhaustive instance of the inconveniences of modern satiety. When we read of the Oxford students beleaguering the bookshops in excited crowds for the first copies of Rokeby and Childe Harold, fighting over the precious volumes, and betting recklessly on their rival sales, we wonder whether either Lord Tennyson's or Mr. Browning's latest effusions created any such tumult among the undergraduates of to-day, or wiled away their money from more legitimate subjects of speculation. Lord Holland, when asked by Murray for his opinion of Old Mortality, answered indignantly, "Opinion! We did not one of us go to bed last night! Nothing slept but my gout." Yet Rokeby and Childe Harold are both in sad disgrace with modern critics, and Old Mortality stands gathering dust upon our bookshelves. Mr. Howell's, who ought to know, tells us that fiction has become a finer art in our day than it was in the days of our fathers, and that the methods and interests we have outgrown can never hope to be revived. So if the masterpieces of the present, the triumphs of learned verse and realistic prose, fail to lift their readers out of themselves, like the masterpieces of the past, the fault must be our own. We devote some conscientious hours to Parleyings with Certain People of Importance, and we are well pleased, on the whole, to find ourselves in such good company; but it is a pleasure rich in the temperance that Hamlet loved, and altogether unlikely to ruffle our composure. We read The Bostonians and The Rise of Silas Lapham with a due appreciation of their minute perfections; but we go to bed quite cheerfully at our usual hour, and are content to wait an interval of leisure to resume them. Could Daisy Miller charm a gouty leg, or Lemuel Barker keep us sleepless until morning? When St. Pierre finished the manuscript of Paul and Virginia, he consented to read it to the painter, Joseph Vernet. At first the solitary listener was loud in his approbation, then more subdued, then silent altogether. "Soon he ceased to praise; he only wept." Yet Paul and Virginia has been pronounced morbid, strained, unreal, unworthy even of the tears that childhood drops upon its pages. But would Mr. Millais or Sir Frederick Leighton sit weeping over the delightful manuscripts of Henry Shorthouse or Mr. Louis Stevenson? Did the last flicker of genuine emotional enthusiasm die out with George Borrow, who lived at least a century too late for his own convenience? When a respectable, gray-haired, middle-aged Englishman takes an innocent delight in standing bare-headed in the rain, reciting execrable Welsh verses on every spot where a Welsh bard might, but probably does not, lie buried, it is small wonder that the "coarse-hearted, sensual, selfish Saxon"—we quote the writer's own words—should find the spectacle more amusing than sublime. But then what supreme satisfaction Mr. Borrow derived from his own rhapsodies, what conscious superiority over the careless crowd who found life all too short to study the beauties of Iolo Goch or Gwilym ab Ieuan! There is nothing in the world so enjoyable as a thorough-going monomania, especially if it be of that peculiar literary order which insures a broad field and few competitors. In a passionate devotion to Welsh epics or to Provençal pastorals, to Roman antiquities or to Gypsy genealogy, to the most confused epochs of Egyptian history or the most private correspondence of a dead author,—in one or other of these favorite specialties our modern students choose to put forth their powers, and display an astonishing industry and zeal.
There is a story told of a far too cultivated young man, who, after professing a great love for music, was asked if he enjoyed the opera. He did not. Oratorios were then more to his taste. He did not care for them at all. Ballads perhaps pleased him by their simplicity. He took no interest in them whatever. Church music alone was left. He had no partiality for even that. "What is it you do like?" asked his questioner, with despairing persistency; and the answer was vouchsafed her in a single syllable, "Fugues." This exclusiveness of spirit may be detrimental to that broad catholicity on which great minds are nourished, but it has rare charms for its possessor, and, being within the reach of all, grows daily in our favor. French poets, like Gautier and Sully Prudhomme, have been content to strike all their lives upon a single resonant note, and men of far inferior genius have produced less perfect work in the same willfully restricted vein. The pressure of the outside world sorely chafes these unresponsive natures; large issues paralyze their pens. They turn by instinct from the coarseness, the ugliness, the realness of life, and sing of it with graceful sadness and with delicate laughter, as if the whole thing were a pathetic or a fantastic dream. They are dumb before its riddles and silent in its uproar, standing apart from the tumult, and letting the impetuous crowd—"mostly fools," as Carlyle said—sweep by them unperceived. Herrick is their prototype, the poet who polished off his little glittering verses about Julia's silks and Dianeme's ear-rings when all England was dark with civil war. But even this armed neutrality, this genuine and admirable indifference, cannot always save us from the rough knocks of a burly and aggressive world. The revolution, which he ignored, drove Herrick from his peaceful vicarage into the poverty and gloom of London; the siege of Paris played sad havoc with Gautier's artistic tranquillity, and devoured the greater part of his modest fortune. We are tethered to our kind, and may as well join hands in the struggle. Vexation is no heavier than ennui, and "he who lives without folly," says Rochefoucauld, "is hardly so wise as he thinks."