Points of view/Literary Shibboleths

LITERARY SHIBBOLETHS.

There is a delightful little story, very well told by Mr. James Payn, the novelist, about an unfortunate young woman who for years concealed in her bosom the terrible fact that she did not think "John Gilpin" funny; and who at last, in an unguarded moment, confessed to him her guilty secret, and was promptly comforted by the assurance that, for his part, he had always found it dull. The weight that was lifted from that girl's mind made her feel for the first time that she was living in an age which tolerates freedom of conscience, and in a land where the Holy Office is unknown. It is only to be feared that her newly acquired liberty inclined her to be as much of a Philistine as Mr. Payn himself, and to believe, with him, that all orthodoxy is of necessity hypocritical, and that when a man says he admires the "Faerie Queene," or "Paradise Lost," or Rabelais, the chances are that he knows little or nothing about them. Now, as a matter of fact, it is seldom safe to judge others too rigidly by our own inadequate standards, or to assume that because we prefer "In Memoriam" to "Lycidas," our friend is merely adopting a tone of grievous superiority when he modestly but firmly asserts his preference for the earlier dirge. It is even possible that although we may find "Don Quixote" dull, and "The Excursion" vapid, another reader, no whit cleverer, we are sure, than ourselves, may enjoy them both, with honest laughter and with keen delight. There is doubtless as much affectation in the world of books as in the worlds of art and fashion; but there must always be a certain proportion of men and women who, whether by natural instinct or acquired grace, derive pleasure from the highest ranks of literature, and who should in common justice be permitted to say so, and to return thanks for the blessings accorded them. "It is in our power to think as we will," says Marcus Aurelius, and it should be our further privilege to give unfettered expression to our thoughts.

Nevertheless, human nature is weak and erring, and the pitfalls dug for us by wily critics are baited with the most ensnaring devices. It is not the great writers of the world who have the largest following of sham admirers, but rather that handful of choice spirits who, we are given to understand, appeal only to a small and chosen band. Few of us find it worth our while to pretend a passionate devotion for Shakespeare, or Milton, or Dante. On the contrary, nothing is more common than to hear people complain that the "Inferno" is unpleasant, and "Paradise Lost" dreadfully long, neither of which charges is easily refutable in terms. But when we read in a high-class review that "just as Spenser is the poet's poet, so Peacock is the delight of critics and of wits;" or that "George Meredith, writing as he does for an essentially cultivated and esoteric audience, has won but a limited recognition for his brilliant group of novels;" or that "the subtle and far-reaching excellence of Ibsen's dramatic work is a quality absolutely undecipherable to the groundlings," who can resist tendering his allegiance on the spot? It is not in the heart of man to harden itself against the allurements of that magic word "esoteric," nor to be indifferent to the distinction it conveys. Mr. Payn, indeed, in a robust spirit of contradiction, has left it on record that he found "Headlong Hall" and "Crotchet Castle" intolerably dull; but this I believe to have been an unblushing falsehood, in the case of the latter story, at least. It is hardly within the bounds of possibility that a man blessed with so keen a sense of humor could have found the Rev. Dr. Folliott dull; but it is quite possible that the average reader, whose humorous perceptions are of a somewhat restricted nature, should find Mr. Peacock enigmatic, and the oppressive brilliancy of Mr. Meredith's novels a heavy load to bear. There is such a thing as being intolerably clever, and "Evan Harrington" and "The Egoist" are fruitful examples of the fact. The mind is kept on a perpetual strain, lest some fine play of words, some elusive witticism, should be disregarded; the sense of continued effort paralyzes enjoyment; fatigue provokes in us an ignoble spirit of contrariety, and we sigh perversely for that serene atmosphere of dullness which in happier moments we affected to despise.

"A man," says Dr. Johnson bluntly, "ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good." In other words, if his taste is for Mr. Rider Haggard's ingenious tales, it is hardly worth his while to pretend that he prefers Tolstoï. His more enlightened brother will indeed pass him by with a shiver of pained surprise, but he has the solid evidence of the booksellers to prove that he is not sitting alone in his darkness. Yet nowadays the critic diverts his heaviest scorn from the guilty author, who does not mind it at all, to the sensitive reader, who minds it a great deal too much; and the result is that cowardice prompts a not unnatural deception. Few of us remember what Dr. Johnson chanced to say on the subject, and fewer still are prepared to solace ourselves with his advice; but when an unsparing disciplinarian like Mr. Frederic Harrison lays down the law with a chastening hand, we are all of us aroused to a speedy and bitter consciousness of our deficiencies. "The incorrigible habit of reading little books"—a habit, one might say, analogous to that of eating common food meets with scant tolerance at the hands of this inexorable reformer. Better, far better, never to read at all, and so keep the mind "open and healthy," than be betrayed into seeking "desultory information" from the rank and file of literature. To be simply entertained by a book is an unpardonable sin; to be gently instructed is very little better. In fact, Mr. Harrison carries his severity to such a pitch that, on reaching this humiliating but comforting sentence, "Systematic reading, in its true sense, is hardly possible for women," it was with a feeble gasp of relief that I realized our ignominious exclusion from the race. I do not see why systematic reading should be hardly possible for women, any more than I see what is to become of Mr. Harrison if we are to give up little books, but never before did the limitations of sex appear in so friendly a light. There is something frightful in being required to enjoy and appreciate all masterpieces; to read with equal relish Milton, and Dante, and Calderon, and Goethe, and Homer, and Scott, and Voltaire, and Wordsworth, and Cervantes, and Molière, and Swift. One is irresistibly reminded of Mrs. Blimber surveying the infant Paul Dombey. "Like a bee," she murmured, "about to plunge into a garden of the choicest flowers, and sip the sweets for the first time. Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Plautus, Cicero. What a world of honey have we here!" And what a limited appetite and digestion awaited them! After all, these great men did not invariably love one another, even when they had the chance. Goethe, for instance, hated Dante, and Scott very cordially disliked him; Voltaire had scant sympathy with "Paradise Lost," and Wordsworth focused his true affection upon the children of his own pen.

It is very amusing to see the position now assigned by critics to that arch-offender, Charles Lamb, who, himself the idlest of readers, had no hesitation in commending the same unscrupulous methods to his friends. We are told in one breath of his unerring literary judgment, and, in the next, are solemnly warned against accepting that judgment as our own. He is the most quoted, because the most quotable of writers, yet every one who uses his name seems faintly displeased at hearing it upon another's lips. I have myself been reminded with some sharpness, by a reviewer, that illustrations drawn from Lamb counted for nothing in my argument, because his was "a unique personality," a "pure imagination, which even the drama of the Restoration could not pollute." But this seems to be assuming more than we have any right to assume. I cannot take it upon myself to say, for example, that Mr. Bagehot's mind was more susceptible to pollution than Charles Lamb's. I am not sufficiently in the secrets of Providence to decide upon so intimate and delicate a question. But granted that others have a clearer light on these matters than I have, it would still appear as though the unpolluted source were the best from which to draw one's help and inspiration. What really makes Lamb a doubtful guide through the mazes of literature is the fact that there is not a single rule given us in these sober days for the proper administration of our faculties which he did not take a positive pleasure in transgressing. His often-quoted heresy in regard to those volumes which "no gentleman's library should be without" might perhaps be spared the serious handling it receives; but his letters abound in passages equally shameless and perverting. "I feel as if I had read all the books I want to read," he writes unconcernedly; and again, "I take less pleasure in reading than heretofore, but I like books about books." And so, alas! do we; though this is the most serious charge laid at our doors, and one which has subjected us to the most humiliating reproofs. It is very pleasant to have Mr. Ainger tell us what an admirable critic Lamb was, and with what unerring certainty he pointed out the best lines of Wordsworth and Southey and Coleridge. The fact remains—though to this Mr. Ainger does not draw our attention—that he found nothing to praise in Byron, heartily disliked Shelley, never, so far as we can see, read Keats, condemned Faust unhesitatingly as "a disagreeable, canting tale of seduction," and discovered strong points of resemblance between Southey and Milton. Under these circumstances, it is hardly safe to elect him as a critical fetich, if we feel the need of such an article, merely because he admired the "Ancient Mariner" and Blake's "Chimney Sweeper," and did not particularly admire "We are Seven." Even his fine and subtle sympathy with Shakespeare is a thing to be revered and envied, rather than analyzed and drawn into service, where it will answer little purpose. But what is none the less sure is that Lamb recognized by a swift and delicate intuition the literary food that was best fitted to nourish his own intellectual growth. This was Sir Walter Scott's secret, and this was Lamb's. Both knew instinctively what was good for them, and a clear perception of our individual needs is something vastly different from idle preference based on an ignorant conceit. It is what we have each of us to learn, if we would hope to thrive; and while we may be aided in the effort, yet a general command to read and enjoy all great authors seldom affords us the precise assistance we require.

Still less do we derive any real help from those more contentious critics who, being wedded hard and fast to one particular author or to one particular school of thought, refuse, with ostentatious continency, to cast lingering looks upon any other type of loveliness. Literary monogamy, as practiced by some of our contemporaries, makes us sigh for the old genial days of Priest Martin, when the tyranny of opinions had not yet grown into a binding yoke, and when it was still possible to follow the example of Montaigne's old woman, and light one candle to Saint Michael and another to the Dragon. At present, the saint—or perhaps the dragon—stands in a blaze of glory, all the more lustrous for the dark shadow thrown on his antagonist. "Praise handed in by disparagement," the Greek drama whipped upon the back of Genesis,—if I may venture to quote Charles Lamb again—this is the modern method of procedure, a method successfully inaugurated by Macaulay, who could find no better way of eulogizing Addison than by heaping antithetical reproaches upon Steele. In a little volume of lectures upon Russian literature, lectures which were sufficiently popular to bear both printing and delivery, I find the art of persuasiveness illustrated by this firebrand of a sentence, hurled like an anathema at the heads of a peaceful and unoffending community: "Read Tolstoï! Read humbly, read admiringly! Reading him in this spirit shall in itself be unto you an education of your highest artistic nature. And when your souls have become able to be thrilled to their very depths by the unspeakable beauty of Tolstoï's art, you will then learn to be ashamed of the thought that for years you sensible folks of Boston have been capable of allowing the Stevensons with their Hydes, and the Haggards with their Shes, and even the clumsy Wards with their ponderous Elsmeres, to steal away, under the flag of literature, your thoughtful moments."

Now, apart from the delightful vagueness of perspective,—for "Robert Elsmere" and "She" grouping themselves amicably together is a spectacle too pleasant to be lost,—I cannot but think that there is something oppressive about the form in which these comments are offered to the world. It reminds one of that highly dramatic scene in Bulwer's "Richelieu," where the aged cardinal hurls "the curse of Rome" at a whole stageful of people, who shrink and cower without knowing very distinctly at what. Why should critics, I wonder, always adopt this stringent and defiant tone when they would beguile us to the enjoyment of Russian fiction? Why should the reading of Tolstoï necessarily imply a contempt for Robert Louis Stevenson? Why, when we have been "thrilled to our very depths" by "Peace and War" or "Anna Karenina," should we not devote a few spare moments to the consideration of "Markheim," a story whose solemn intensity of purpose in no way mars its absolute and artistic beauty? And why, above all, should we be petulantly reprimanded, like so many stupid and obstinate children? I cannot even think that Mr. Howells is justified in calling the English nation "those poor islanders," as if they were dancing naked somewhere in the South Seas, merely because they love George Eliot and Thackeray as well as Jane Austen. They love Jane Austen too. We all love her right heartily, but we have no need to emulate good Queen Anne, who, as Swift observed, had not a sufficient stock of amity for more than one person at a time. We may not, indeed, be prepared to say with Mr. Howells that Miss Austen is "the first and the last of the English novelists to treat material with entire truthfulness," having some reasonable doubts as to the precise definition of truth. We may not care to emphasize our affection for her by repudiating with one breath all her great successors. We may not even consider "The Newcomes" and "Henry Esmond" as illustrating the degeneracy of modern fiction; yet nevertheless we may enjoy some fair half-hours in the company of Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Elton, of Catherine Morland and Elizabeth Bennet. Only, when we are searching for a shibboleth by which to test our neighbor's intellectual worth, let not Jane Austen's be the name, lest we be rewarded for our trouble by hearing the faint, clear ripple of her amused laughter—that gentle, feminine, merciless laughter—echoing softly from the dwelling-place of the immortals.

It is inevitable, moreover, that too much rigidity on the part of teachers should be followed by a brisk spirit of insubordination on the part of the taught. Accordingly, now and then, some belligerent freeman rushes into print, and shakes our souls by declaring breathlessly that he hates "Wagner, and Mr. Irving, and the Elgin Marbles, and Goethe, and Leonardo da Vinci;" and this rank socialism in literature and art receives a very solid and shameless support from the more light-minded writers of the day. Mr. Birrell, for instance, fails to see why the man who liked Montgomery's poetry should have been driven away from it by Macaulay's stormy rhetoric, nor why Macaulay himself could not have let poor Montgomery alone, nor why "some cowardly fellow" should join in the common laugh at Tupper, when he knows very well that in his secret soul he much prefers the "Proverbial Philosophy" to "Atalanta in Calydon" or "Empedocles on Etna." A recent contributor to Macmillan assures us, with discouraging candor, that it is all vanity to educate ourselves into admiring Turner, and that it is not worth while to try and like the "Mahabharata" or the "Origin of Species," if we really enjoy "King Solomon's Mines" or the "Licensed Victualler's Gazette." On the other hand, we have Ruskin's word for it that unless we love Turner with our whole hearts we shall not be—artistically speaking—saved; and hosts of strenuous critics in the field of letters are each and every one assuring us that there is no intellectual future for the world unless we speedily tender our allegiance wherever he says it is due. Poet-censors, like Mr. Swinburne, whose words are bitterness and whose charity is small, lay crooked yokes upon our galled necks. Even the story-tellers have now turned reviewers on their own account, and gravely tell us how many novels, besides their own, we should feel ourselves at liberty to read.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly a matter of surprise that people whose minds are, as Mr. Bagehot termed it, "to let" stand hesitating between license and servitude. On the one side, we hear men—intelligent men, too—boasting that they never read anything but the newspapers, and seeming to take a perverted pride in their own melancholy deprivation. On the other, we see both men and women, and sometimes even children, practicing a curious sort of literary asceticism, and devoting themselves conscientiously and very conspicuously to the authors they least enjoy. These martyrs to an advanced cultivation find their self-imposed tasks, I am happy to think, grow harder year by year. Helen Pendennis, occasionally reading Shakespeare, "whom she pretended to like, but did n't," had comparatively an easy time of it; but her successor to-day who goes to a lecture on Hegel or Euripides when she would prefer cards and conversation; who sits, perplexed and doubtful, through a performance of "A Doll's House" when "Little Lord Fauntleroy" represents her dramatic preference; who tries to read Matthew Arnold and Tourguéneff, and now and then Mr. Pater, when she really enjoys Owen Meredith, and "Booties' Baby," and the Duchess, pays a heavy price for her enviable reputation. "The true value of souls is in proportion to what they can admire," says Marius the Epicurean; but the true value of our friends' distinction is in proportion to the books we behold in their hands. We have hardly yet outgrown the critical methods of the little heroine of "Mademoiselle Panache," who knows that Lady Augusta is accomplished because she has seen her music and heard of her drawings; and, as few of us resemble the late Mr. Mark Pattison in his unwillingness to create a good impression, we naturally make an effort to be taken at our best. Mr. Payn once said that Macaulay had frightened thousands into pretending they knew authors with whom they had not even a bowing acquaintance; and though the days of his autocracy are over, it has been succeeded by a more fastidious and stringent legislation. We no longer feel it incumbent upon us to profess an intimacy with Thucydides, nor to revere the "Pilgrim's Progress." Indeed, a recent critic has been found brave enough to speak harsh words concerning the Delectable Mountains and the Valley of Humiliation,—words that would have frozen the current of Macaulay's blood, and startled even the tolerant Sainte-Beuve, weary as he confessed himself of the Pilgrim's vaunted perfections. But there is always a little assortment of literary shibboleths, whose names we con over with careful glibness, that we may assert our intimacy in hours of peril; nor should we, in justice, be censured very severely for doing what is too often with us, as with the Ephraimites, a deed of simple self-defense.

These passwords of culture, although their functions remain always the same, vary greatly with each succeeding generation; and, as they make room in turn for one another, they give to the true and modest lovers of an author a chance to enjoy him in peace. Wordsworth is now, for example, the cherished friend of a tranquil and happy band, who read him placidly in green meadows or by their own firesides, and forbear to trouble themselves about the obstinate blindness of the disaffected. But there was a time when battles royal were fought over his fame, owing principally, if not altogether, to the insulting pretensions of his followers. It was then considered a correct and seemly thing to vaunt his peculiar merits, as if they reflected a shadowy grandeur upon all who praised them, very much in the spirit of the little Australian boy who said to Mr. Froude, "Don't you think the harbor of Sydney does us great credit?" To which the historian's characteristic reply was, "It does, my dear, if you made it." Apart from the prolonged and pointless discussion of Wordsworth's admirable moral qualities, "as though he had been the candidate for a bishopric," there was always a delicately implied claim on the part of his worshipers that they possessed finer perceptions than their neighbors, that they were in some incomprehensible way open to influences which revealed nothing to less subtle and discriminating souls. The same tone of heartfelt superiority is noticeable among the very ardent admirers of Robert Browning, who seem to be perpetually offering thanks to Heaven that they are not as other men, and who evince a gentle but humiliating contempt for their uninitiated fellow-creatures; while Ibsen's fervent devotees dwell on the mountain tops apart. How many people, I wonder, who believe that they have loved Shelley all their lives, find themselves exceedingly dazed and harassed by what Mr. Freeman calls "the snares of Shelleyana," a mist of confusing chatter and distorted praise! How many unambitious readers, who would fain enjoy their Shakespeare quietly, are pursued even to their peaceful chimney-corners by the perfidious devices of commentators and of cranks! In the mean while, an experienced few ally themselves, with supreme but transient enthusiasm, to Frédéric Mistral or to Pushkin, to Omar Khayyám or to Amiel; and an inexperienced many strive falteringly to believe that they were acquainted with the Rubáiyát before the date of Mr. Vedder's illustrations, and that the diary of a half-Germanized Frenchman, submerged in a speculative and singularly cheerless philosophy, represents the intellectual food for which their souls are craving.

The object of criticism, it has been said, is to supply the world with a basis, a definition which cannot be accused of lacking sufficient liberality and breadth. Yet, after applying the principle for a good many years, it is discouraging to note that what has really been afforded us is less a basis than a battlefield, the din and tumult from which strike a discordant note in our lives. That somewhat contemptuous severity with which critics address the general public, and which the general public very stoutly resents, is urbanity itself when compared with the language which they feel themselves privileged to use to one another. Señor Armando Palacio Valdés, for example, who has been recently presented to us as a clear beacon-light to guide our wandering steps, has no hesitation in saying that "among the vulgar, of course," he includes "the greater part of those who write literary criticism, and who constitute the worst vulgar, since they teach what they do not know." But this is the kind of thing that is very easy to say, and carries no especial weight when said. The "of course" adds, indeed, a faint flavor of unconscious humor to the enviable complacency of the whole, and there is always a certain satisfaction to a generous soul in the sight of a fellow-mortal so thoroughly enjoying the altitude to which he believes he has risen.

"Let us sit on the thrones
In a purple sublimity,
And grind down men's bones
To a pale unanimity,"

sings Mrs. Browning in one of her less luminous moments; and Señor Valdés and his friends respond with alacrity, "We will!" Unhappily, however, "the greater part of those who write literary criticism," while perhaps no more vulgar than their neighbors, are not generous enough nor humorous enough to appreciate the delicate irony of the situation. They rush forward to protest with energetic ill temper, and the air is dark with warfare. Alas for those who succeed, as Montaigne observed, in giving to their harmless opinions a fatal air of importance! Alas for those who tilt with irrational chivalry at all that man holds dear! How many years have passed since Saint-Evremond uttered his cynical protest against the unprofitable wisdom of reformers; and to-day, when one half the world devotes itself strenuously to the correction and improvement of the other half, what is the result, save pretense, and contention, and a dismal consciousness of insecurity! More and more do we sigh for greater harmony and repose in the intellectual life; more and more do we respect the tranquil sobriety of that wise old worldling, Lord Chesterfield, who counsels every man to think as he pleases, or rather as he can, but to forbear to disclose his valuable ideas when they are of a kind to disturb the peace of society.

In reading the recently published letters of Edward Fitzgerald, we cannot fail to be struck with the amount of unmixed pleasure he derived from his books, merely because he approached them with such instinctive honesty and singleness of purpose. He was perfectly frank in his satisfaction, and he was wholly innocent of any didactic tendency. Those subjects which he confessed he enjoyed because he only partly understood them, "just as the old women love sermons," he refrained from interpreting to his friends; those "large, still books," like "Clarissa Harlowe," for which he shared all Tennyson's enthusiasm, he forbore to urge upon less leisurely readers. And what a world of meaning in that single line, "For human delight, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Scott"! For human delight! The words sound like a caress; a whole sunny vista opens before us; idleness and pleasure lure us gently on; a warm and mellow atmosphere surrounds us; we are invited, not driven, to be happy. I cannot but compare Fitzgerald reading Scott, "for human delight," in the quiet winter evenings, with a very charming old gentleman whom I recently saw working conscientiously—so I thought—through Tolstoï's "Peace and War." He sighed a little when he spoke to me, and held up the book for inspection. "My daughter-in-law sent it to me," he explained resignedly, "and said I must be sure and read it. But,"—this with a sudden sense of gratitude and deliverance,—"thank Heaven! one volume was lost on the way." Now we have Mr. Andrew Lang's word for it that the Englishmen of to-day, "those poor islanders," indeed, are better acquainted with "Anna Karenina" than with "The Fortunes of Nigel," and we cannot well doubt the assertion, in view of the too manifest regret with which it is uttered. But then nobody reads "The Fortunes of Nigel" because he has been told to read it, nor because his neighbors are reading it, nor because he wants to say that he has read it. The hundred and one excellent reasons for becoming acquainted with Tolstoï or Ibsen resolve themselves into a single motive when we turn to Scott. It is "for human delight" or nothing. And if, even to children, this joy has grown somewhat tasteless of late years, I fear the reason lies in their lack of healthy unconsciousness. They are taught so much they did not use to know about the correct standing of authors, they are so elaborately directed in their recreations as well as in their studies, that the old simple charm of self-forgetful absorption in a book seems well-nigh lost to them. It is not very encouraging to see a bright little girl of ten making believe she enjoys Miss Austen's novels, and to hear her mother's complacent comments thereon, when we realize how exclusively the fine, thin perfection of Miss Austen's work appeals to the mature observation of men and women, and how utterly out of harmony it must be with the crude judgment and expansive ideality of a child. I am willing to believe that these abnormally clever little people, who read grown-up books so conspicuously in public, love their Shakespeares, and their Grecian histories, and their "Idylls of the King." I have seen literature of the delicately elusive order, like "The Marble Faun," and "Elsie Venner," and "Lamia," devoured with a wistful eagerness that plainly revealed the awakened imagination responding with quick delight to the sweet and subtle charm of mystery. But I am impelled to doubt the attractiveness of Thackeray to the youthful mind, even when I have just been assured that "Henry Esmond" is "a lovely story;" and I am still more skeptical as to Miss Austen's marvelous hair-strokes conveying any meaning at all to the untrained faculties of a child. Can it be that our boys and girls have learned from Emerson and Carlyle not to wish to be amused? Or is genuine amusement so rare that, like Mr. Payn's young friend, they have grown reconciled to a pretended sensation, and strive dutifully to make the most of it? Alas! such pretenses are not always the facile things they seem, and if a book is ever to become a friend to either young or old, it must be treated with that simple integrity on which all lasting amity is built. "Read, not to contradict and confute," says Lord Bacon, "nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse;" and, in the delicate irony of this advice, we discern the satisfaction of the philosopher in having deprived the mass of mankind of the only motives which prompt them to read at all.