Men of Letters
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MEN OF LETTERS
MEN OF LETTERS
WITH AN INTRODUCTION
HODDER AND STOUGHTON
Printed in 1916
PAGE vii ix 1 48 63 78 111 119 133 163 179 184 191 205 214 221 229 233 238 245 257
Some time before the War, the late Mr. Dixon Scott arranged to publish a collection of his essays and literary criticisms, and after his death at Gallipoli it was felt that it was due to his memory that the plan he had left unfinished should be carried through. He had drastically revised and largely rewritten six of the principal essays, and amongst his papers were found various tentative lists of others he had thought of including in a volume which he proposed to entitle "Men of Letters." Most of the essays named in his lists have been brought together in these pages. Four have been added (Sir W. Robertson Nicoll, Mrs. Meynell, C. E. Montague, and Rupert Brooke), for the selection of which the present editor is responsible. The six on Shaw, Barrie, Kipling, Houghton, Granville Barker, and William Morris are the only essays that have received final revision at the hand of their author; the rest are reprinted from the periodicals in which they originally appeared.
Because of certain opinions Dixon Scott had expressed privately and in his writings, it was felt that nothing could be more fitting than that his book, published in such circumstances, should have an Introduction by Mr. Max Beerbohm, and this Mr. Beerbohm most kindly consented to write. He confessed, on reading a set of proofs, that he would feel rather more comfortable if the essay on himself were omitted, but added that if its inclusion had formed part of Dixon Scott's own plan for his book, then he would not urge a personal wish against it but "accept the situation." Therefore, and because the essay is peculiarly characteristic of Scott's work, the editor has ventured to retain it.
A year ago it would have been a pleasure to write something in appreciation of Dixon Scott's work. The more you admire a man's writing the gladder are you that he should receive—for all good writers seem to be modest, and pleased with praise—whatever poor tribute you can offer him. But to review the book of a man at the outset of his career is a very different task from writing an "introduction" to that book when he is dead. Dixon Scott was born in July, 1881, and died in October of last year. And my sense of our loss is proportionate to my admiration for his work. I feel it to be an immense loss.
Many others there are who mourn him as a friend also—as a man of fine and very lovable character, they say. Such a man is indeed easily discernible throughout these pages. But it is likely that the reader will wish to know more of him by direct evidence; and I wish that the sad privilege of writing here about his work had fallen to someone who knew him and could describe him.
The main facts of his life, as I have learned them, are few and simple enough. He was the only son of John and Margaret (Dixon) Scott. He was educated at Breeze Hill, Walton. He was for some years clerk in a bank at Liverpool. Later, he was awarded a fellowship in the University of that city, and received much kindness and encouragement from Professor Elton. He might have had an altogether academic career, but preferred to be a journalist. He returned to the home of his parents at Marston Trussell, near Market Harborough; and it was there that he did all his work. He wrote a weekly article about books for The Liverpool Courier, whose editor, Mr. Macleay, had been one of the first to appreciate his gifts. He wrote also many signed reviews for The Manchester Guardian. Mr. C. E. Montague, Mr. A. N. Monkhouse, and other pillars of that classic journal, were his friends. From London the keen eye of Sir William Robertson Nicoll discerned him, and soon he was contributing essays in criticism to The Bookman. Rather to his friends than to him it seemed a shame that his work should all be buried away disjectedly in the files of periodicals. He was persuaded to make a selection, to make a book. He began this task early in 1914, but, since he was as searching and sensitive a critic of himself as of others, I daresay he would not quickly have accomplished it even if the world's history had pursued its normal course and laid no new great claim on his spirit. So soon as 1914 had shown itself in its true colours, the personal task he had been working at must have seemed to him negligible enough. Anyhow, it was unfinished when he, a Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, sailed for Gallipoli. It was on October 2nd of last year that he landed there. And on the 23rd of that month he died of dysentery, aboard a hospital ship.
In the manner of his death, in the fact that such a brain as his stopped and was lost to us not by force of some random shell or bullet from the human enemy, but by operation of Nature on a frame that had never been robust, one may find—or not—a melancholy consolation. In any case, it is not he, save for what physical sufferings he may have had before death, that we need pity. Sympathy is never needed by the unknowing dead, and should be kept rather for those who held them dear, and have lost them, and live. Many a bereavement in this war will have been the more bitter for the knowledge that the lost one had in him something that, in future days of peace, would have had a great outcome, surely. Not the least tragic thought that besets men in 1916 is that the toll taken is, in the strictest sense, incalculable. Among the very young lives laid down there may—we shall never know—have been a Shakespeare, a Newton, a far greater than Mr. Pitt, a far greater than whom you will. Not quite so sad is it to think of those who were old enough to have done, to have given, already something of what was in them to do and give. I think the readers of this book will find that Dixon Scott was one who had given, according to his bent, much already.
"Will find" I say. It may be that in Manchester and in Liverpool his work was well-known and appreciated, and his death widely mourned. I am inclined to believe that provincial cities are, in matters of literature and journalism, and in other matters, fresher and more receptive than London is. I know only London. And, well though I happen to know it, I was, when Dixon Scott died, surprised at the fewness of the people—I mean the quite specifically bookish and paperish people—who were aware that Dixon Scott had lived. Much of his best work had been in The Bookman, duly signed—the essays on Henry James and Mr. Shaw and Mr. Kipling, for example. Strange, to me, that any one reading them could have forgotten the writer's name and them! There are on the London press many brilliant critics of books; but the total effulgence is not so utterly blinding as to leave me unastonished that Dixon Scott's light was distinct to so very few. I infer that in London a writer, until he has been a great deal written about, has no chance of a reputation even among those who are keen on reading. Dixon Scott's work was (in form) journalism; and journalists are not encouraged by editors to write about one another. Had he been a writer of books, and had these contained but a tithe of the quality he showed in his articles, he would have won quick enough fame even in the metropolis, I fancy. I don't say that his failure to do so was, for him, regrettable. A young artist who sets the Thames on fire is very apt to singe his own fingers. Obscurity, if he has ambition of a worldly kind, is a spur, and doesn't irk him if he hasn't. I gather from report that Dixon Scott had no worldly ambition but to earn enough for bread and butter. But, though he seems to have been indifferent to fame, he was not, I happen to know, ungrateful for a little praise; and I wish he had had rather more of it from that "royal city of romance," as London appeared to him, "towering tremendously above the level of the shires."
Much of the charm of his writing—the freshness, the vigorous youngness of it—is due to his having been a provincial. He was not unconscious of an advantage in being so. "A Londoner," he wrote, in another criticism than that from which I have just quoted, "sees life at an angle, foreshortened, as from a stagebox; instead of taking to it gradually, breast on, from the primitive beach, every step an adventure, he nips into it aslant, deep water at once, from the door of his sophisticated bathing-van—a solid half of experience irrecoverably missed." And elsewhere he wrote, in like vein, that provincialism "teaches an artist proportion and perspective, teaches him humility, persuades him, above everything, to that wordless belief in something finer than he has ever experienced." Without wishing to be pedantic, I should demur that provincialism and humility are not inseparable. It all depends. I have known provincials to be very aggressive, very pragmatical and cocksure, and have been sure that metropolitan birth would have softened them. But certain it is that if a man has the rare gift of humility, the provinces are the best place for it to thrive in.
Dixon Scott had this gift in ample measure; and it was the very core of his power. Not by humility alone can we critics excel; but the more we have of it, the better. Gone are the days when we dared bench ourselves aloft to acquit or condemn, according to a fixed code of laws, the shivering artist in the dock. Many of us, no doubt, would like to go on doing this; but wouldn't the laughter in court be unquenchable if we did? We may cast a wistful quarterly glance at that motto which still adorns the cover of The Edinburgh Review; but well we know that it is no longer a question of the judge being condemned if the guilty man is let off: the judge was condemned long ago on his own demerits. There is a letter in which Miss Charlotte Brontë wrote of her trepidation in meeting, at a dinner given for that purpose by her publisher, three leading critics. One can imagine them—grave, bald, whiskered men in broad-cloth, peering through their spectacles at the little woman of genius, and wondering whether she would be able to prove her innocence; immensely grave and self-important gentlemen, and yet—had they and she but known it—ghosts, empty and pathetic survivals from another century. At the coming of the romantic school in literature, at the passing of the classical school, the old criticism had ceased to exist; but it didn't know this; nobody knew this. It was in quite recent times that people, looking back, realized that the current judicial criticism of literature in the nineteenth century had been one long series of awful "howlers." The immediate result of this discovery was the laying of the ghost that had stalked and gibbered so long. The way was now clear for living criticism—criticism adaptable to the quality of its subject matter. Not that this was a new kind of criticism. Sensitive Lamb and eager Hazlitt were of the past, chronologically; and they had had imitative successors. But only now was it generally recognized that their method was the most trustworthy and the best; that the critic was not the superior of the creative artist; that his duty was not to dictate, but to understand and suggest; that he had, in fine, no right to wear a full-bottomed wig and looked very well in a peaked cap with interpreter round the front of it.
Let those of us critics who chafe at the comparative modesty of their head-gear take comfort in the thought that they are very much more interesting to themselves and to others than the old Judges ever were. Long robes and ermine may have been gratifying to their wearers, but were incompatible with any natural freedom of movement, and smothered all individuality. Nowadays the critic is free to be actively himself. It is always pleasant to be that, and always worth while to watch any one being that. Of course the degree of interest and pleasure taken in watching a critic be himself is greater or less according to what sort of self his is. A fussily obtrusive self diminishes the pleasure; a languid self abates the interest. Never for a moment will you find Dixon Scott consciously interposing his "ego" or in any way bothering about it. Not the less is he always a self-revealing writer; and the revealed is consistently charming and engaging. As for languor, I daresay that the more rest-loving of his readers will sigh, now and again in the course of his pages, for a touch in him of that defect. They may wish he went a little more slowly and quietly. I agree that his manner is sometimes open to the charge of boisterousness. But let it be remembered that in writing for the press a man does not—or at any rate should not—write in exactly the tone he would use in writing a book, and that most of these articles were written for daily newspapers. An article in a daily newspaper has this in common with a "turn" in a music-hall: to make any effect at all, to "carry," it must be done with a certain sharpness of "attack." Dixon Scott knew this well, as you may see by what he says of the journalist's need to transform "the quiet essay into the alert, immediate article"; and you may be sure that had he lived he would have restored these articles to the form in which he (literary by nature, journalistic by circumstances) first conceived them in his mind. The articles that he had actually revised were the longer ones, the elaborate ones, which had appeared mostly in The Bookman. Collating the final text with the original, I find it was precisely this process of restoration that he aimed at—and achieved. For the rest, his boisterousness is never of that kind—that Futuristic kind—which doesn't strike one as having a corresponding vitality to back it up. There is always behind it a strong-rushing current of thought and feeling.
One often wonders which of these two things, the power to feel strongly and the power to think strongly, plays the greater part in the making of fine criticism. Feeling, of course, comes first in point of time. First the surrender to a work of art, the sensitive delight in it and passionate absorption of it. There are critics who never get beyond that stage—and very good critics too, many of them; but incomplete. We are grateful to them for having rapture and for passing it on to us; but we want to know why they and we are in such ecstasies. In other words, a critic ought to be able to use his brain as well as his heart. Dixon Scott kept a powerful and subtle brain working at high pressure for us. You will find nothing tentative in these pages, and nothing left to chance. Before be put pen to paper, he always knew what he was about; he had always gone to the root of his subject, grasped the whole range of it. It is true that in every essay he seems to be setting out breathlessly on a wild and mysterious adventure fraught with all manner of difficulties and perils which he will not disguise from you, his companion. But you need have no fear. He knows the way. He has been over all the ground. He knows just where the goal is, and will punctually set you down there.
Sometimes, perhaps, he leads you by some path not because it is a short cut, but just because it is rocky and precipitous. Belonging very much to the age he lived in, Dixon Scott had a delight in paradoxes. It may be that a hundred years hence our typical writers will all seem to have been a little mad, just as the typical writers of the eighteenth century seem all to have been a little dull. But in the best of those bygone writers one sees that the dullness is a mere mannerism: it does not affect for us the excellence of their work. Nor can I imagine that any discerning person who may read Dixon Scott's book in the twenty-first century will be much disturbed by the parodoxes—many of which, by the way, are solid truths, and all of them mere incidents in the exposition of some general truth.
I know not whether to admire more the wide "synthetic sweep" of his mind or the truly exquisite subtlety he had in analysis. Certainly, no other English critic has had such an ear as Dixon Scott had for the vibrations of "style" in literature, or has been able to analyse so minutely, with such unerring science, the technical peculiarities of this or that man's writing. In the essays on Mr. Shaw, Mr. Kipling, Mr. C. E. Montague and many others, you will find done, done perfectly, something which has hardly been even attempted by any one else, Dixon Scott said of Rossetti that he "loved the very feel of language." This is equally true of himself. And in him, together with the sensuous delight, there was a quite dry clear understanding of the smallest component parts of what he had to deal with—such knowledge as engineers have of engines.
The gift for writing well is a casual gift. As often as not, men of powerful intellect, and of deep feeling, have no gift for playing the fiddle. Just as often have they no gift for writing. Many good fiddlers are fools, and there are many fools who (strange though it may seem) can through written words express their folly with ease, lucidity, and grace. The people most sensitive to music, and most learned in it, have often no executive talent at all; nor does it follow that because he loves and understands good literature a man is not liable to be a duffer so soon as he takes pen in hand. Luckily Nature did not withhold from Dixon Scott the specific gift for writing. She endowed him with it in all abundance. When I began to read the proof-sheets of this book, I noted for quotation passages that seemed to me specially brilliant in their verbal felicity; but they were soon so numerous that I had to close my list. At whatever page you open this book you will find some of those felicities.
Multitudinous though they are, they have something of the preciousness of rarity; for there will be no more of them. The greater your pleasure in these pages, the greater, necessarily, is your sense of what is lost, and the more sadly will you ponder over what, had he come safely through the war, Dixon Scott would have done with his genius. Would he, for all his humility, have been content to go on writing about other people? Would he, who was so creative in his criticism, not have been impelled from within to use his imagination and insight, his humour and wisdom, in a purely creative form? One cannot tell. Between creative criticism and creation there is a frontier, almost imperceptible though it be; and Dixon Scott might or might not have crossed it. He wrote verses when he was very young. Some of these I have been allowed to see. They do not seem to have more than usual merit. In later years he meditated a novel, but this he did not actually write. (Zarya, a novel published some years ago, was by another writer whose name, oddly enough, is Dixon Scott.) It is likely that the strength of his critical faculty would have hampered him in creative work: watched by himself so narrowly at every step, he could hardly not have faltered. I am inclined to think that his future lay along the path he was already treading. It was hoped by his friends, and by any one who appreciated his work, that he would one day be able to shake off those fetters of journalism which, though he trod so buoyantly in them, must have galled him. One cannot read his longer and more important essays without wishing they were longer still—were indeed whole books, vessels to hold all that there so evidently was to be poured in. One wishes he had been free to write not always essays about the work of this or that man, but books about whole periods and schools. One regrets that he had to concern himself always with writers of his own time. Of his subjects in this book, Browning and Morris alone were not alive when he wrote about them. Yet how many in English literature are the men, and groups of men, about whom Dixon Scott should have discoursed to us!
It may be that he preferred, and would always have preferred, to appraise rather the living or the recently dead than those whose writings had already been sifted, and their positions fixed with more or less finality, by Time. For it is clear that the adventurous spirit in him delighted in ways that had not been made smooth—ways where risks were to be run and queer things to be discovered and new horizons to be hailed.
Well, the adventurous spirit urged him, in due season, to a more impersonal errand, wherein a greater glory was to be won. And, as he was not destined to return, this book, that was to have been a writer's first-fruits, is offered by other hands as his memorial.