Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1724/Barry Cornwall

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From The Fortnightly Review.

BARRY CORNWALL.[1]

Of all men in the world the biographer of Lamb deserved to be fortunate in his own biographer, and the volume before us, fragmentary as it is, conveys a complete impression of the charm which the compiler has felt. We hardly know Mr. Procter when we have read it, but we know why he was loved by all who knew him. The book is full, one might say, of the perfume of a flower which has bloomed its time, and it is rather a gain than a loss that there is no print of the discolored petals on the leaves. If one wishes to see how the dead flower looked in the keen air that killed it, one must turn to Miss Martineau, who made Procter the subject of one of the shrewdest and not the least kindly of her sketches. At first it looks as if it were her talent to pick out the facts of the poet's personality, while it was C. P.'s talent to explain facts away; but after all it is C. P. who leaves the impression of a character which might be conceived as a whole. This is the more important because Mr. Procter, like Lamb, originally owed his place in the literary world quite as much to his personality as to his talent. Lamb's personality had a piquancy which can be explained, but Mr. Procter's charm, though as genuine and as potent, was more indefinite.

"His small figure, his head not remarkable for much beside its expression of intelligent and warm good-will, and its singular likeness to that of Sir Walter Scott; his conversation, which had little decision or 'point' in the ordinary sense, and often dwelt on truths which a novelty-loving society banishes from its repertory as truisms, never disturbed the effect, in any assemblage, of his real distinction. His silence seemed wiser, his simplicity subtler, his shyness more courageous than the wit, philosophy, and assurance of others. When such a man expressed himself more or less truthfully in a series of gracious poems, of which he alone of all his circle did not seem proud, it naturally followed that all who knew him were eager to declare and extend the credit and honor to which he had aspired with so much simplicity, and which he bore with so entire an absence of self-assertion. The tradition of such a character has the power of lingering in the world even when the life has been so uneventful as to leave little scope for biography and even for anecdote. And the writings which are the outcome of that character are floated down by such tradition to a posterity which might never have heard of them but for this proof of their genuineness."

That is true, and admirable, and generous, and yet it points to another point of view. Observe that the system of female kinship is limitation: the chief lesson of the lives of Byron, or Shelley, or Burns, is how much their inspiration cost; but we do not admire the inspiration less because it was visibly at the cost of the life. Their greatness is such that we feel judgment to be an impertinence; it is only of smaller men that the observation holds good. "Their ways cast suspicion on their works, and the reputation of a man of genius who lacks in his life the courage or the habits of his inspiration may suffer for generations, or even forever, if his biography happens to have been such or so written as to go down to posterity with his truer self."

Mr. Procter's life did honor to his poetry, and is in a way in harmony with it; but it is the harmony of contrast, the harmony of the leaf and the flower, one might almost say the harmony of the ashes and the flame. Here, too, we are reminded of Scott, whose practical life as lawyer and laird, with its eager bustle of practical cheerfulness, contrasts oddly with the sentimental regret for the past, on whose ruins he throve; as Mr. Procter's idealism in verse, with its alternations of romantic grace and wilful exaltation, contrasts with the cautious prudence and refinement of his life. Of course if we knew Mr. Procter as well as we know Scott, we should see that the life had its romantic, perhaps even its wilful, element, too. Only with Scott the turn of the homely, practical element came first; with Mr. Procter the turn of the romantic element came earlier, in the long interval between boyhood and middle age. Another difference is that in Scott's large nature there was room for both at once. One side might be more conspicuous at one time and another at another time, but both were always there. The contrast forces itself upon us more in a nature of narrower range, less massive and less complex, and proves perplexing from its very simplicity. The poetry of Barry Cornwall is the record of the extravagances of one who was habitually sober, the audacities of one who was habitually cautious, the eloquence of one who was habitually reserved. And yet there is no inconsistency, the contrasted elements heighten and sustain each other. It is a mistake to suppose that the only way to make the most of what we value in life is to concentrate ourselves upon it. Labor heightens the zest of a holiday, and a holiday restores the energy of the laborer; there is a reaction after a fit of high spirits, but there is a reaction from depression too. The reason that most of us fear to abandon ourselves to the natural alternation of our moods and desires, as we abandon ourselves to the natural alternation of cloud and sunshine, day and night, is that we are not disinterested and free: our appetites and theories chain us to a treadmill which we must go on mounting as long as we can, because we know that we shall lose our footing, and be crushed at last. Such unity as our lives attain is due to the pursuit of a purpose, the carrying out of a doctrine in season and out of season: the unity of a life like Mr. Procter's, serene and beautiful even on "the woeful threshold of age," where he had to linger so long, is due to the spontaneous nobility of mind which never forgot its innate generosity, delicacy, and uprightness, in converse with nature as with men, with books and the world, but gave their due to all.

He came of a good stock, of a family of farmers which had held their own in Yorkshire or Cumberland - he never knew which - for three hundred years or more without producing anybody distinguished, and rather ashamed than otherwise of the one period when their line was crossed by a strain of indisputable gentry. His father was one of several children - "the best among the males." Perhaps this was the reason why he came up to London to seek his fortune; he found it rather than made it, and when he had found it he "subsided into a private station where he lived unoccupied and independent for many years. He possessed," his son says, "the most uncompromising honesty I ever met with. My mother was simply the kindest and tenderest mother in the world."

In his autobiography, which does not go beyond his twentieth year, he dwells with predilection on everything that can be made to show himself in a commonplace light He was really a singular and precocious child, with a touch of something out of the common in his quality from the first, and yet neither then nor afterwards was his mental stature much above the common. At five he knew nothing beyond his letters, or a little easy reading acquired mainly from a Bible full of pictures; but for a year past he had, as we learn on the authority of his mother, preferred books to everything, and could hardly be got to leave them for his meals. His senses, he says, were attracted by the scent of the violet, the April grass, and the flowers; he heard noises in the winds and the running river; otherwise he marched quietly onwards in the great crowds of human life with his undiscovered destiny before him. The sign of that destiny showed itself in the childish love, whose story is told in the beautiful essay on the death of friends. In the height of his passion he was sent to school; he tells us little of himself or of what he learnt there, but much of a charming, kindhearted emigré, M. Molière, who was one of the masters, who was fond of mignonette and myrtle, and denied himself even these pleasures for the sake of charity. At thirteen he went to Harrow, where he was the contemporary of Peel and Byron, and he once promised to pay Peel half a crown to do an imposition for him. He did not admire the studies of the place; and the levelling character of public school discipline told upon him to the full. "The daily task, the daily meal, the regular hours of sleep and exercise, or idleness, were all sufficient in themselves for me. I had nothing of that feverish unwholesome temperament which opens the scholar into worlds beyond his reach, and which is sometimes called genius; not much even of that vigorous ambition which tempts him into the accessible region just above him; yet I was not without daring." In fact he was rather celebrated for his boxing, and liked in after years to recollect that he had beaten boys bigger than himself.

It was in the vacations in the country, which he spent mostly at the house of his mother's uncle, that his individuality nourished itself: he fancied that a raven haunted him; some things which were beautiful, and many things which were terrible, operated very sensibly upon him; he began to dream and to recollect his dreams, and strove to discover their meaning and origin. A healthier influence was that of a servant, the daughter of a man who had failed in a profession or business. She knew Richardson and Fielding well, and told him stories out of them, and taught him to worship Shakespeare, whose works he bought with the first money he got, and entered into a world beyond his own: it is characteristic that he did not attempt to carry on his Shakespearian studies at Harrow. He left there at eighteen, and was articled to Mr. Atherton, a solicitor at Calne, where he spent two of the most fruitful years of his life. He learned to think and feel, and there was nothing to interrupt him: he was attached to Mr. Atherton, but not to his profession, which only influenced him by setting him to brood on all the difficulties and intricacies of life. In his autobiography he makes light of the doubts and change of opinion which at the time he dignified with the name of speculations, and it is, perhaps, to be wished, that people whose individual opinions are of less value than Mr. Procter's, were as far from the pretension of idealizing them. Country life told favorably upon susceptibilities which he regarded as more important: he fell in and out of love, and cultivated his imagination, and even began to write verses.

About 1807, at the age of twenty, he came to London to live, and for the first eight years he seems to have been sufficiently occupied with living. He did not work at his profession; he can hardly be said to have worked at literature: oddly enough, it was his acquaintance with three literary men whom he could hardly admire, that first made him aware that he too was capable of literature. He had no ambition, and a great awe for authorship in the abstract; but when this awe was worn away by experience, he was attracted by a refined amusement which lay within his reach. In 1815, he began to contribute poetry to the Literary Gazette. In 1816 his father died and left him what seems to have been a handsome independence for a bachelor, which he enjoyed without impairing it, though some temporary embarrassment connected with his partnership with a solicitor of the name of Slaney made him, about 1821, dependent upon his literary earnings, to his great disgust. He kept a hunter, he took boxing lessons from Cribb, he went to the theatre. In his youth, he says himself, he had some courage and some activity. These years of freedom and enjoyment were also the years in which he made his mark as a poet: the "Dramatic Scenes," "Marcian Colonna," the "Sicilian Story," "Mirandola, a Tragedy," and "The Flood of Thessaly, all appeared between the years 1819 and 1823. Then, too, he laid the foundation of the lyrical collection which was published in 1832 and continued to receive additions for many years. One almost fancies that the Barry Cornwall of those years was the true Procter, and that then his life and imagination were of a piece, and that the irony, now paradoxical and now pathetic, of the later years, was due to the contrast between the old life and the new - the true self flashing through the veil which custom and courtesy and prudence had woven over it. Mr. Procter wrote a poem in the manner of "Beppo," and there is a whole side of his poetry which reminds us of Byron; only in him the revolt, natural to a simple, vivid spirit in its hours of exaltation against second-hand systems of doctrine and proprieties of conduct, was not inflamed by a morbid organization or poisoned by personal excess. It may be doubted whether he had force enough to sustain him in his revolt; and the temper of rebellious scorn was subdued by the influence of a dutiful and prosperous life, till his best friends doubted whether it was more than a poetical caprice, just as he doubted himself whether Godwin's magnanimity had any existence except on paper.

It is noticeable that he seems to have thought "Don Juan" was Byron's great poem. Perhaps its realism attracted him: one can fancy his disliking the rather rhetorical mysticism of "Childe Harold," and the rather theatrical heroism of "The Giaour" and "The Corsair." He had the sense of measure and of sanity, if not exactly of reality; he disliked what was vast and vague and pretentious. He was capable, which Stothard was not, of. a genuine imaginative sympathy with passion; but subject to this limitation we might adopt the biographer's graceful parallel between them. "In their characters, even more than in their works, there is a quality rarely found elsewhere, except in sensitive, single-hearted (and slightly 'spoilt') children; children who are confident of their company, and have not been laughed or frightened out of knowing and speaking their own minds. These alone express themselves with such directness, concreteness, and naïve limitation; often attaining, in their artlessness, to humor, wit, and grace which are the artist's envy. The greatest point of resemblance between Stothard and the poet is that last named - a narrow limitation of the sphere of thought and feeling; a sort of voluntary ignoring of all that might clash with or contradict the habitual mood or idea." "Stothard and Mr. Procter are alike chargeable with sometimes giving the effect of hard outlines where no outlines really exist; and this through no incapacity of touch, but by an artistic idiosyncrasy; an insistance on the beloved limitations; a protest against the vastness, variety and inscrutability of fact."

In Mr. Procter's case the protest was accentuated by his innate energetic right-mindedness. "Few men surpassed him in the unpretentious and untalkative wisdom and fidelity of a right direction of heart and mind." And for this very reason he had a curious dread and distrust of public opinion, which is always too noisy to be quite sincere, and is always insisting on more than it really wants, and pretending to more than it really has. 'Those who have the power of being leaders without the vocation of being martyrs, make the most of it as a boisterous approximation to truth; but it presents itself as a hypocritical tyranny to simpler, perhaps finer, natures, who ask only to lead their own lives, do their own duty, and take their own pleasure.

At the time we are speaking of public opinion was divided against itself, it was the opinion of a party, and for this reason Mr. Procter feared it the more; he had a sort of feeling that unless he kept clear of party warfare, party spirit would crush him as he believed it had crushed Hazlitt, whose clearness and precision and robust sincerity were very attractive to him. He was fond in his old age of dwelling on his own freedom from party connection (though Blackwood and the Quarterly long insisted on abusing him as a Whig), and believed that it was to this that he owed his free intercourse with all the literary men of his day; which was really the reward of his talent for exquisite hospitality and his entire freedom from self-assertion.

But though he saw the whole literary movement of his day and sympathized with it, his own place in it is very definite. He belongs to the group of Leigh Hunt and Lamb and Keats: Leigh Hunt influenced him as an example; Lamb influenced him as a guide in the wide field of Elizabethan drama. One cannot say that either he or Keats influenced each other; but there is a real analogy in their method, and in their dependence upon the literature which they studied. Keats, of course, is incomparably the most fertile and splendid of the two; but, except in his odes and sonnets and the ballad of "La Belle Dame sans Merci," Keats never mastered his materials, while Mr. Procter, who did not begin to write till he was eight-and-twenty, is always thoroughly workmanlike, and the union of purity and delicacy, with masculine sanity and vigor, is always attractive. Like Keats Mr. Procter sometimes touches Shelley, as in the "Journal of the Sun" which the editor has printed, on the side where Shelley touches Greece, and Byron on the side where Byron touches Ariosto, and one might add this is not the most valuable side of Keats or Barry Cornwall. And with all his manliness there is an element of unreality in Barry Cornwall which there is not in Keats. Keats wrote of what he imagined, though his imagination was colored by his reading. Barry Cornwall's imagination was not so rich. He wrote of what he read and felt, without having seen or known. So far as his reading fed feeling which found itself a musical expression, he was justified in the gentle contempt he entertained for the tendencies of a later school, with whom reading sometimes serves to feed nothing better than a cold, fanciful precision of detail; but after all he stops short of real insight. It is not that by choice or by defect of power he has to subordinate force and truth of detail to general harmony and richness of effect: it is that in the narrative poems, at any rate, he has no firsthand grasp upon nature and fact at all. He gets his effects, which are really rich and harmonious, by combination and reflection out of the second-hand impressions which he has retained from reading.

His dramatic works are of a higher order. Lamb said of the "Dramatic Scenes" that there was not one of them that he would not have placed in his collection if he had found it in one of the Garrick plays at the British Museum. And though this praise has its limits, it is not at all too high. The scenes Lamb extracted from the ancient drama are commonly much better than the plays they are taken from. The plays are alive, but as wholes they are not for the most part delightful. Barry Cornwall's "Dramatic Scenes" are delightful if we will take them for what they are; without asking if they too might, not have been enshrined in live coherent plays. There is one sort of romanticism which finds the fresher air and brighter light it longs for in old books, as another finds it in old life; and for romanticists of the first sort Barry Cornwall seized and reproduced the charm of the gracious pathos and nobility of the Elizabethan, or rather Jacobean, drama, with as much mastery as Scott, on a larger scale, seized and reproduced the charm of the picturesqueness and generosity of Border and Highland life. Every nation which is fortunate enough to possess a classical drama, inherits from it a school of. classical acting, and this school in turn propagates a longer or shorter succession of acting plays, with classical pretentions, which perhaps in a period of literary revival may possess genuine literary merit. "Mirandola" was so good and succeeded so well that, as late as 1844, Mr. Carlyle, among others, was still pressing the author to persist in the career of dramatist, which he had long abandoned. According to the author's own account it was a very hurried and imperfect production. "Had I taken pains I could have made a much more sterling thing; but I wished for its representation, and there were so many authors struggling for the same object that I had not firmness to resist the opportunity that was opened to me through the kindness of Mr. Macready to offer it to the proprietor of Covent Garden Theatre. I allowed the play to appear, while I was conscious of its many shortcomings. The toil of placing a tragedy or comedy on the stage (apart from the trouble of writing it) is sufficient to daunt most men from repeating the experiment. Without doubt, the activity and kindness of Mr. Macready, and the general good-will of the actors, saved me from much trouble, and from many rebuffs. The tragedy was acted for sixteen nights; it produced, including the copyright, £630; and then passed away (with other temporary matters) into the region of the moths.

"Mirandola" was performed in 1821. In that year the author became engaged to Miss Skepper, the daughter of Mrs. Basil Montagu by her first husband. Considering the way in which he spoke of his most considerable literary effort, it is anything but strange that his marriage in 1825 should have been the close of his literary career. Literature had been the pastime of his leisure, when leisure had been the whole of his life; he had neither strength nor ambition to pursue it in the intervals of business. And he turned to his business of conveyancing with an ardent appetite which left few intervals, as men often do who take up practical life late, and find they are still in time to succeed. Apparently the sense of having got hold of reality at last, just before a man's power is over, is one of the keenest enjoyments there is. Mrs. Procter says her husband never expressed so much satisfaction at any literary success as when the solicitor on the opposite side employed him because he admired his work. He took many pupils - Eliot Warburton and Kinglake among them. He sat up two nights a week to work, and lived to reflect, that if in all labor there is profit, this too is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Here are two stanzas from "Labor Improbus," published for the first time in the work before us: -

In the morn are dreams of labor,
Labor still till set of sun;
Evening comes with scanty respite,
Night - and not one good is won.
Formal phrases! - barren figures!
Sentence such as steam might turn!
What, from such laborious trifling,
Can the human creature learn?

I remember hopeful visions
Since that time have fled away -
When wild autumn brought its leisure,
And the sunshine summer day;
Now unseen the river wandereth,
And the stars shine on their way;
Flowers may bloom, but I, poor laborer,
With the worn-out year decay.

One notices that what he regrets is liberty to enjoy nature rather than liberty to cultivate art. Long ago he had defended poetry on the ground that it helps better than most things to keep us near our ideal; but after all, people come nearer their ideal in a really happy marriage. Mr. Procter's marriage must have been very happy; and busy as he was, a really tuneful nature can always find space for song. Mr. Procter agreed with most of his friends in regarding the "English Lyrics," as the most permanent portion of his work. He differed from them, characteristically, in doubting whether they would really last. He rather overrated the power of fashion, and thought it hard to believe that any author could be classical when the sale began to fall off; he thought he had lived to see the end of even Wordsworth's day. Even the editor feels a need of reassuring himself against his author's self-distrust: he fortifies his own judgment with the testimonies of Landor and Mr. Swinburne; but there is really no need to go beyond the unbroken consent of the literarti of fifty years. The interest of the "Dramatic Scenes" is purely literary, and though it is probable that good judges here and there will always be found to rate their literary merit as high as that of the "English Lyrics," the time has come when they have decidedly more interest for literati than for cultivated men at large. And the "English Lyrics" appeal to all cultivated men, and as literati are men too, they appeal more readily than the "Dramatic Scenes" even to literati.

It is easier to feel the charm of the "English Lyrics" than to define it. We know approximately what Burns is admired for, or what Shelley is admired for. We know the sort of grace which seemed admirable in Moore, or, to come to a later reputation, we know what is the attraction of the "Legends and Lyrics" of Barry Cornwall's own daughter, which it seems now are selling better than any poetry but Mr. Tennyson's. But when we try to appraise the "English Lyrics," it seems hard at first to get beyond praise that would do for anybody. When we have said that the sense and feeling and tune are thoroughly good and manly, and that the metre and finish are quite good enough, we have said no more than we might fairly say of any creditable fiasco of a personal friend. That is clearly not an adequate account to give of poetry which a whole generation of intelligent readers, including many like Miss Martineau, who were not easily moved, found the most moving poetry of the time. Perhaps we come a little nearer when we notice that one of the most individual traits of Mr. Procter's lyrics is a hearty æsthetic appreciation of horseflesh and wine. When we remember how sober he was in the actual enjoyment of both, his praise of them takes the character of an escapade, and this character seems in a way to fit his lyrics as a whole, and to account for the attractiveness they have for earnest and intelligent readers in a community which is getting more complex rather than more perfect. Such readers are repelled by a systematic revolt against what is indispensable, or a systematic pursuit of what is unattainable, but a short sincere musical cry interprets and relieves their passing moods of personal discontent, and the deeper undercurrent of social dissatisfaction that runs through most generous lives.

One of Mr. Procter's few irrepressible convictions was that the inequalities of an old civilization were too iniquitous to be borne without relieving them, and he quite consistently exhorted the community in verse to wholesale almsgiving, while in prose he wanted the few, who found it almost as hard as he did to be callous to distress, not to impoverish themselves to relieve the ratepayers. His own generosity took the form of secret and delicate assistance to the temporary distresses of people of his own condition. The editor has told the secret of an unasked loan of this kind to a friend whose wife was saved by the timely help, although Mr. Procter's own income had been largely reduced by his relievency from the Commission of Lunacy. In such cases he was always willing to act on the maxim qui prête donne, but it did not raise his opinion of human nature to find the maxim generally taken for granted by those he helped. There are plenty of useless people in the world who never get any good luck or deserve any, and hardly know a happy day, and yet when they excite themselves over human life in general, they say, as sincerely as they can say anything, how fine and admirable they think it all. Mr. Procter's life was full of good luck till he was over seventy, and full of good deeds till the last, and yet, whenever he got excited over human life as a whole, he always thought it a poor, sorry, contemptible thing, and said so with emphasis.

The literary character of the "English Lyrics" is as composite as that of the other poems. As Lord Jeffrey says in the admirable review of the "Sicilian Story," from which the editor has quoted largely, there are echoes of the Cavalier poets of the usurpation; the terrible verses on the Burial Club in 1839, now printed for the first time, seem to owe their motive to Dickens; but the manner is almost an anticipation of the imitators of Browning. "The Hebrew Priest's Song" reads almost like a very early work of Mr. Swinburne.

Mr. Procter was too sure of perception for a critic, who had best not be much wiser than the public, so that he can sit down with them to analyze and feel his way, and we probably lost little by his being too busy to respond to Jeffrey's endeavors to secure him for the staff of the Edinburgh. But the few fragmentary recollections of contemporaries, mostly written down after he was seventy-eight, deepen the regret which the classical life of Lamb, published when he was seventy-seven, left behind, that he did not put a complete account of his literary souvenirs on record. Now and then, as in the case of Carlyle (from whom there is a beautiful. letter on the life of Lamb), Mr. Procter's judgment is too straightforward to be suggestive, but in a hundred pages, more or less, there are not a few stories as good as this of Rogers. Mr. Wordsworth was breakfasting with him one morning, he said, but he was much beyond the appointed time, and excused himself by stating that he and a friend had been to see Coleridge, who had detained them by one continuous flow of talk. "How was it you called so early upon him?" inquired Rogers. "Oh!" said Wordsworth, "we are going to dine with him this evening, and ——" "And," said Rogers, taking up the sentence, "you wanted to take the sting out of him beforehand."

There is more than one appreciation as rare and gentle as this of Leigh Hunt. "He saw hosts of writers, of less ability than himself, outstripping him on the road to future success, yet I never heard from him a word that could be construed into jealousy or envy, not even a murmur. This might have arisen partly from a want of susceptibility in his constitution, not altogether from that stern power of self-conquest which enables some men to subdue the rebellious instincts which give rise to envious passions. . . . He had no vanity, in the usually accepted sense of the word, I mean, that he had not that exclusive vanity which rejects all things beyond self. He gave as well as received, no man more willingly. He accepted praise less as a mark of respect from others than as a delight of which all are entitled to partake, such as spring weather, the scent of flowers, or the flavor of wine. It is difficult to explain this; it was like an absorbing property in the surface of the skin. Its possessor enjoys pleasure almost involuntarily, whilst another of colder or harder temperament is insensible to it."

When Mr. Procter spoke of pleasure, he spoke of what he knew. He had said long ago, "If life itself were not a pleasure, the utility even of its necessaries might very well be questioned." He is almost an unique example of one who without a touch of baseness deliberately and consistently preferred enjoyment to activity. G. A. Simcox.

  1. Bryan Walter Procter (Barry Cornwall). G. Bell and Sons.