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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 99/Reviews and Literary Notices

REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.

Life and Letters of Frederick W. Robertson, M.A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-1853. Edited by Stopford A. Brooke, M. A. Two Volumes. Boston: Ticknor & Fields.

 

The Life and Letters of Mr. Robertson will find a most extended and appreciative welcome among a large company of sympathizing and grateful readers on both sides of the ocean. The way has been prepared for them, and their most hearty reception has been assured, by the acquaintance opened for us with his mind and heart through the extensive circulation of the several volumes containing his Sermons and Addresses. When the first of those volumes was reprinted here, it wrought an immediate effect upon hundreds, who were instinctively drawn to its perusal, and who have since seized with avidity upon each subsequent opportunity furnished them for possessing themselves of everything that could be put into print which would renew and intensify that effect. An exhaustive review of that one department of our religious literature which embraces utterances from the pulpit would, we believe, fully establish these two positions: first, that the ability shown alike in the composition and in the delivery of sermons is at least equal in each age and generation to the average of that which is exhibited in the forum and at the bar; and, second, that preachers of extraordinary power appear at just such intervals and under just such conditions as will best assure us of a reserved and as yet unrecognized capability in the pulpit, redeeming it from the charge of a general dulness and exhaustion. It was at the very time when the newspaper press of England and America was reiterating and illustrating this charge, not without many tokens that supported it, that the sermons of Mr. Robertson were offering at least one signal exception to its truth, sufficient even to silence it within the range of his ministry. An eminently able and effective preacher appears often enough to reassert the loftiest ideal of his profession, and, what is more, to vindicate it against the distrust and contempt to which it may seem to be exposed by the "popular preachers." As we write, there is circulating through the papers a very striking paragraph from an article by that distinguished divine, Mr. Caird, in which, with a sharp criticism, he deals, as we should suppose a man of his high tone would deal, with the theme of popular preaching, especially as to its effects upon the dispenser of it and upon the crowds who gather to it. Mr. Robertson shrank from the repute of it, and the inflictions which it visits, as he did from sin. He knew full well, that, as the popular taste and standard were not educated to an appreciation and approval of the very loftiest style of ministration, the more of curious, gaping notoriety, or even admiration, he might draw towards him, the poorer was the incense.

Yet there must be a fallacy somewhere involved in the common judgment on this subject. For Mr. Robertson certainly was a popular preacher; and yet, as he never made the slightest concession to any of the arts or trickeries, the displays or exaggerations, which are supposed to be essential conditions of that repute, his own example and experience may stand as at least an exceptional proof of the possible dignity and solidity of the position. When he had been addressing a thronged congregation, who hung, impressed and awed, upon his utterances, he goes home to write about the scene and its circumstances in strong disdain, almost with angry contempt, as if it were a reproach to himself. Did not the large majority of his hearers receive in their hearts and minds the electric power of his earnest and ever instructive speech? Suppose it were true, as he had painful reasons for knowing, that there were always before him frivolous, empty-headed, and unappreciative hearers, the hangers-on of a fashionable watering-place, who went to listen to him because he was the rage; such as these could be only a scattering among his auditors. Suppose, too, that the captious, the jealous, the bigoted, and the conceited were represented there, intending to catch matter for bringing him under public odium in their own circles, because he trespassed upon the borders of heresy, or shocked the conventional standards of snobbish society, or spread his range broadly over the widest fields of moral and political relations; the very presence and purpose of such listeners were, to one of his grandeur and purity of spirit, a new inspiration of courage and fidelity. On the whole, so far as Mr. Robertson really came under the designation which he so dreaded to bear, he has made it an honorable one. Perhaps it would not be saying the right, as it certainly is not saying the best thing about his sermons, now so widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic, to speak of them as meeting any popular taste. Would that we could estimate so highly the craving and the standard, among what are called religious readers, as to assert for him a favoritism equal to that accorded to a Cumming, a Spurgeon, or even a Chalmers. Chalmers may have spoken from what was, in his time, the highest round of elevation at which he would have been listened to by those who demanded fidelity to an accepted doctrinal system as the basis for whatever eloquence, logic, rhetoric, or unction might avail in presenting it. But Mr. Robertson rose to a higher plane, and took a far wider horoscope. His freest ventures require that he have readers able and willing to share them.

The biographical materials now furnished will afford a high gratification to readers on this continent, who, after perusing the sermons of Mr. Robertson, have felt a keen desire to know something about the man. We believe that very many of those readers, after availing themselves of the information concerning him imparted in these volumes, will turn back again to his discourses to give them a more deliberate study. He was a man to engage the profoundest interest of those who live to scrutinize the elements of character and the developments of a life-history and work in an individual whose mission is that of a reconciler and a reconstructor of opinions, creeds, and theories, in one of the great transitional periods of thought and belief.

The biography before us is a model which cannot be too closely followed by any one who in time to come shall be privileged to have a subject for his pen at all resembling, or approximating to, the character and career of this extraordinary man. The editor was himself rarely privileged for his work in the quality of his materials, and he has shown an admirable skill in their use. His chapters begin with the statement of dates, facts, incidents of a biographical or local character, marking the life-periods, the external relations and positions of Mr. Robertson, and are then substantially made up of his correspondence. We can recall now no collection of letters which can be compared with these for comprehensiveness of matter, felicity of diction, and elevation of tone and sentiment, in discussing alike the commonplace and the loftiest themes of didactic and spiritual religion, under the most vitalized and intense dealing with it in our modern life. If we should utter all we have felt, as we have lingered as if entranced over many of these pages, we should fail of carrying with us those who, not having yet read them, would, after their perusal, pronounce our encomiums inadequate. Mr. Robertson's life was a short one, covering only thirty-seven years. There was nothing conspicuous in the sphere of it. He held only the lower offices of his clerical profession. Yet we believe we can say, without exaggeration, that no one member of that profession, from its bishops down to its curates, with perhaps the single exception of Dean Stanley, has so wisely divined or so ably presented as he did the modifications which must be made in the popular dispensation of religion through the Church, if it is longer to expect a hearing, or even its present show of tolerance, from those who share the average intelligence of the age.

This man, who so nobly, and with a rare consistency of character and life, fulfilled the office of a minister of the Prince of Peace, seems all along to have had a heart divided by its first love for a military life and service. Many readers will find a puzzling problem in reconciling themselves to this fact, as it shows tokens all through his career that the preference of his youth was also that of his experienced manhood. His honored father still survives him as a Captain in the Royal Artillery, retired from service. Three brothers in the military service also survive the preacher. He was brought up, as he often writes, in camps and barracks, and loved no sound as he did the boom of artillery. It was a grievous cross to his cherished inclinations, when he was sent by parental authority to the University. Being there, he had no misgiving as to the choice left him for life. He gave himself heart and soul to the ministry, and that, too, under views of doctrine and duty, to be followed out in its discharge, amazingly unlike those to which the free, expanding, and grandly independent growth of his own rare powers finally led him. Would he have been the same heroic, conscientious, and devout man as a soldier that he was as a minister? the reader will more than once be prompted to ask over these pages. He would have been a splendid example of heroism and chivalry in any cause which his conscience could have espoused. But if military orders had constrained his loyalty in behalf of some of the infamous predatory outrages which English arms have of late years visited upon India and China, could a man such as he was have retained his commission? His letters give abundant proof that his ecclesiastical superiors had no prerogative sway over his conscience. How could he have borne the constraints of subordination in following a flag which recognizes no scruples of distinctions between right and wrong when it rallies its champions? However this might have been, certain it is that all the grand imagery of the battle-field and the fight, of spear and breastplate, shield and sword, of soldierly manliness and fidelity, by which St. Paul symbolizes the warfare of life, and the armor of those who would come off conquerors, is literally and gloriously realized in Mr. Robertson's course and in himself. He was a soldier of the sublimest type,—a bold, earnest, self-denying, effective, and high-souled battler of the worst foes of man, and the gentle, kindly, loving defender of the weak, the unfriended, the wronged. He his wishes which left him free to fight the enemies of truth and righteousness.

During his student-life at Oxford his mind seemed to have been held in a balance by his affections between those who had committed themselves respectively to the Tractarian and the Evangelical parties. The solution which he was to work out for himself of any real perplexities involved in the issue between them was to lead him clear of both of them. His own devoutness and sincerity, aided no doubt by the domestic and social influences of his early religious training, set him forward, in the first experimentings as a curate, as an earnest disciple of the "evangelical" fellowship. He made a faithful trial of its principles and methods. His reading and his self-training, his standard of fidelity, and the tone and style of his ministerial work, were all dictated by the teaching of that school. He outgrew it, and cast aside all that belonged to it: he came utterly to detest and loathe its characteristic peculiarities. Ever remaining heartily loyal, as he believed, in essential doctrinal conviction, and in practical conformity, to the Church of England, he allowed himself a range of liberty within the terms of its formulas, which left him, as he felt, not only unfettered, but also quickened by the inspiration of a freedom restrained by no other bounds than those of humility and reverence. His power of apprehension, his skill in analysis, his keen sagacity and penetration in detecting the kernel of truth through all husks and integuments, made him the most facile of critics, as well as one of the most trustworthy interpreters of conflicting theories. His magnanimity and catholicity of spirit gave him an almost preternatural comprehensiveness of sympathy with minds and consciences struggling in opposite directions for satisfaction. He engaged himself upon all the freshest problems which the critical, scientific, and radical restlessness of our age has opened. We believe that professional experts, and even the foremost pioneers in the new fields which have thus been opened, will find valued help, either of cheering encouragement, or of wise, restraining caution, in his passing comments on their materials or methods. He was wholly free of that conceit and superciliousness of temper by which most of the rash and blatant empirics of "advanced thought" manage to disgust the slow and conservative makeweights of moderation. If we should attempt to express in a single phrase the charm and loftiness of Mr. Robertson's personal and representative manifestation, we should say, that he, more than any other man of the age, was the saint of the new liberalism, even of the extreme radicalism. More than any other conspicuous man who had cast aside and spurned the old traditionalisms of credulity, ignorance, and prejudice, he consecrated free-thinking. For each single negation he offers a positive belief, or a tenable ground of belief, which substitutes an efficient and quickening tenet for a faith such as will satisfy and sanctify. Of course he shocked and startled many, but none through flippancy or irreverence. He was capable of a holy indignation, and even occasionally, it would seem, of bitterness of tone, when he knew, by a divining spirit which no sham or hypocrisy could blind, that he was challenged not in the interests of truth, but of falsehood. Like all great and searching souls, he had a dark shadow of melancholy often cast over him. He is another witness to us of a well-certified truth, that deep thoughts, while they are in process, not in repose, are sad thoughts. What sort of friends he had, and by what tenacity of love, reverence, and gratitude he held them, and how the delicate ties which bound them to his heart were felt by him as inspirations to fidelity in such lofty trusts, a score of letters in these volumes will touchingly illustrate. As we have been enjoying their perusal with a rare delight, we have anticipated the same experience as multitudes around us will share in.

 

The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke. Revised Edition. Vols. I.-III. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.

 

It is interesting to know that Burke was not really accounted among the attractive orators of his day, and that people had a habit of going out of Parliament when he rose to his feet. It illustrates the compensations of time, atoning to the literary man for the immediate superiorities of the public speaker. Fox said, that, the better a man spoke, the harder it usually was for him to compose; and that brilliant orator now lingers only as a name, while his laborious adversary still holds his own in literature, and resumes his career in this admirable American edition.

It shows the intellectual comprehensiveness of our people, that they are ready to be taught by this great man, so resolute an opponent of our most fundamental ideas. Everything that American institutions affirm Burke denied, except the spirit of truth and faith which alone give any institutions their value. Grattan said of him, that, so great was his love for arbitrary power, he could not sleep comfortably on his pillow, unless he thought the king had a right to take it from under him. He demonstrated to his own satisfaction that it was far more congenial to the human mind to yield to the will of one ruler than of a majority, and stated it as a "ridiculous" theory, that "twenty-four millions should prevail over two hundred thousand." Regarding it as the very essence of property that it should be unequal, he could conceive of no safeguard for it but that it should be "out of all proportion predominant in the representation."

Yet, so vast were his natural abilities, his acquirements, and his aims, that he is instructive even as an antagonist, and has, moreover, left much that can now be quoted on the right side of every great question. If he can also be quoted on the other side, no matter. For instance, Buckle claims for him, that "he insisted on an obedience to the popular wishes which no man before him had paid, and which too many statesmen since have forgotten." Yet Burke himself boasted, at the time of his separation from Fox, that he was "the first man who, on the hustings, at a popular election, rejected the authority of instructions from constituents, or who in any place has argued so fully against it."

 

Songs of Seven. By Jean Ingelow. Illustrated. Boston: Roberts Brothers.

 

The sweet female singer who has been so warmly welcomed of late in England and America deserves to be "illustrated." "Songs of Seven" is one of her best pieces, but not her best. The "High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire" is certainly worthy of the special honor here accorded to the "Songs of Seven"; and we are somewhat surprised at the selection, by her American publishers, of these particular verses for illustration.

The wood-cuts in "Songs of Seven" vary materially, and are not in harmony throughout. Some are of the first order of excellence, while some are weak and inadequate. Nearly all the square blocks show artistic thought and skill, and really illustrate the poem. Those by another hand (the artists' names are not given) betray paucity of mind, as well as uncertain fingers.

The most attractive merit of this volume is the printer's part of it. The red borders are as beautiful in their way as any ornamental inclosures can be; and we have only to compare them with some others in books published this year in America to note how superior they are in every respect. The University Press, to which belongs the credit of this work, has justly won to itself the first praise where printing is appreciated as a fine art. We have recently seen an edition of the King's-Chapel Liturgy, with rubrics, from this press, which must rank among the best-printed books of our time.

 

A Chronological History of the Boston Watch and Police, from 1631 to 1865; together with the Recollections of a Boston Police-Officer, or Boston by Daylight and Gaslight. From the Diary of an Officer Fifteen Years in the Service. By Edward H. Savage. Boston: Published and sold by the Author.

 

This book can hardly be characterized as an important addition to elegant or learned literature; nor, indeed, does it aspire to any such distinction. We notice it, in passing, as giving us a glimpse into that world within the world, over whose surface we walk every day, scarcely conscious of its existence; and we accept also the opportunity to make due and honorable mention of the services of that class of men through whose sagacity, integrity, and steadfastness the rest of us are enabled to become sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights. It is well occasionally to recollect how far the safety and order of the city depend upon a brave, vigilant, and trustworthy police, that a due recognition of the fact may serve both as acknowledgment for the past and increased security for the future.

The brief chronological sketch at the beginning of the book furnishes many curious and interesting facts of old as well as new time, some of which we should, on the whole, be rather glad to forget. Without confessing that we were sinners above others, we yet are not so clean given over to mutual admiration as to take special pleasure in learning that Hugh Bowett was banished for maintaining that he was free from original sin, (though in our day we generally find such saints disagreeable enough to deserve banishment,)—nor that Oliver Holmes was whipped for being a Baptist,—nor that William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson were hung on the Common as Antinomians and heretics,—nor that a Frenchman, who was suspected of setting a fire near the dock, which consumed eighty buildings, was sentenced to stand in the pillory, to have both ears cut off, pay charges of court, give five hundred pounds bonds with sureties, and stand committed till sentence was performed. We must also suspect the early English traveller, Mr. Ward, of a little Old-Country prejudice, when he writes of Boston,—"The buildings, like their women, are neat and handsome; and their streets, like the hearts of their men, are paved with pebbles. They have four churches, built with clapboards and shingles, and supplied with four ministers,—one a scholar, one a gentleman, one a dunce, and one a clown. The captain of a ship met his wife in the street after a long voyage, and kissed her, for which he was fined ten shillings. What a happiness, thought I, do we enjoy in Old England, where we can not only kiss our own wives, but other men's, without a danger of penalty!" Unquestionably Boston was no place for Mr. Ward, and Mr. Ward not at all the man for Boston. Yet, with an occasional blemish and many a casualty, the record is also one of good works and alms-deeds.

Reading the Police Recollections is like peering down through a crevice into some subterranean cavern, where an intense convulsive activity prevails without ceasing, day and night. The actors seem scarcely to be men and women, but such puppets as dance on electric machines, of movements too swift and sudden for human beings, too reckless, eccentric, and apparently inconsequent for moral beings. A certain phenomenal life they have, a fitful flare of gusty, fierce existence, and then the instant flicker and fading into extinction. Yet the philanthropist remembers, with a sigh, that these are living souls, children of the same Father as himself, amenable to the same laws, accountable at the same judgment-seat; and the practical question bears down upon him with ever-increasing force, How shall these outcasts of society be brought into the Father's house?

More hopeless than the Pariahs are the Brahmins of our heathenism,—those miserable men whose corrupt lives are glossed over with a varnish of respectability. Church, assembly, and drawing-room see the outer surface; the police know the under side, and a sorry side it seems too often to be. The solid man of Boston bears himself loftily to wife, child, and neighbor; but the bluecoat on the corner perceives a shameful secret of crime and guilt lurking under the fair outward seeming. These are the spots in our feasts of charity.

There are kind hearts for sorrow, as well as sharp eyes for crime, among our policemen, as many a deed of charity and humanity bears witness; and their varied duties bring them into contact with human nature in its oddest manifestations. At a large fire they were obliged to carry out by main strength "an old lady weighing nearly two hundred pounds, very much against her will. . . . . When told that her life was in danger, she replied, 'It is all bosh that ye tell me. Has not my landlord repeatedly told me that the house was insured?' Kitty Quadd was very much delighted that her trunk had been found. 'It's not the value of me clothing, Sir, but it's me character that's there,—me character it is'; and, hurrying her hand into the pocket of an old dress, as she lifted it from the trunk, she drew forth a dirty piece of paper with much apparent satisfaction. 'This is it, an' sure enough it's safe it is, and it's yerself that shall read it too, for yer kindness,' said she. I unfolded the paper, and read as follows:—

"'This certifies that Kitty Quadd is a good domestic, capable of doing all kinds of work; but she will get drunk when opportunity offers.

"'(Signed)Mrs. S———.'"

 

The Life of Michael Angelo. By Herman Grimm. Translated, with the Author's Sanction, by Fanny Elizabeth Bunnétt. Two Volumes, Boston; Little, Brown, & Co.

 

Although it is impossible, in the short space usually allotted to book-notices, to criticize such an important work as M. Grimm's Life of Michael Angelo, a concise description of its contents may still be desirable. The work may be taken as an example of the great advance made in the art of writing biography since the commencement of the present century. Old biographies, like old histories, are little else than gossiping chronicles of events, interspersed with vague moral reflections, which usually have as much to do with every other subject in the realm of thought as with the subject especially under consideration. The present generation, however, has produced histories, like those of Buckle and Draper, which, whether successfully or not, have endeavored to exhibit the causal relation of events to one another. In them, historic occurrences are viewed as the evidence, confirmatory or illustrative, of certain laws of progress, the elucidation of which is the main object of the work. A similar change has occurred in the manner of writing biography. The Life of Robespierre, and the still more elaborate and finished Life of Goethe, by Mr. Lewes, have aimed at presenting the circumstances which influenced the development of their heroes,—at showing us the steps by which they have obtained, the one an infamous and horrible notoriety, the other the love and veneration of mankind, both now and as long as mankind shall endure. The work of M. Grimm is in some respects similar to these. The author is not content with telling us when the great Michael Angelo was born, when he died, who his parents were, what he painted, wrote, sculptured, and builded, where he lived, and how many feet and inches he measured in his stockings. He aims at more than this. He presents us with a vivid picture of the life and manners, the opinions and feelings of Italian men at the time when this great creative genius lived. He sets before us the circumstances which guided his career, the occurrences upon which his intellect was brought to bear, and the objects with which his imagination was nurtured. In short, he shows us Michael Angelo in his environment. The life of Michael Angelo is, indeed, peculiarly susceptible of such a treatment. To a far greater extent in him than in most creators can be traced the influence of external circumstances. His long life, extending over nearly a century, was affected for good or ill by very many of the great political events contemporaneously occurring,—and few other ages have been more fruitful in great events. Born in 1475, in the good old days of Florentine freedom under the earlier Medici, when the Arabs still ruled from the Alhambra the fairest portion of Spain, when America was yet undiscovered, and before England had recovered from the civil wars of the Roses, his life extended to 1564, to the times of Elizabeth, of Philip II., and of William the Silent. He saw the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. He beheld the rise and fall of Savonarola; the invasions of Naples by Charles VIII. and Louis XII., and its conquest by Gonsalvo; the struggle for supremacy between Charles V. and Francis I.; the rise of Protestantism and the establishment of the Inquisition; the horrible sack of Rome by the troops of De Bourbon; and the extinction of liberty in his native city,—the robbing of the Florentine Peter in 1530 to reimburse the Roman Paul for damages sustained in 1527. In the last fearful struggle of the Florentines for their liberty Michael Angelo took an important part. The city-walls were fortified under his direction, and not a day of the dreadful siege saw him absent from his post on San Miniato. Before that, he had been connected with the proceedings of Savonarola; and his marvellous group of the Mourning Madonna and the Dead Christ is supposed by Grimm to have been called forth by the sad occurrences of 1498. He was connected with Lorenzo de' Medici, Piero his son, Julius II., Leo X., Clement VII, Paul III., Paul IV., and Pius IV.; and the complicated affairs of each of these rulers affected at every turn his life, and not unfrequently gave to his labors an entirely new direction.

It is M. Grimm's great merit to have described all these events so that they appear with the vividness of contemporaneous history, and to have clearly indicated their effect upon the life of his hero. He has given us a charming history of the sixteenth century, with Michael Angelo as its colossal central figure. The work contains much else that is admirable: reflections upon Grecian and Venetian art, and a sketch of the history of design in later times.—But to discuss or even to enumerate all its beauties, and to criticize its few defects, would be here impossible. We will therefore dismiss the subject, hoping that M. Grimm may gratify and instruct us by still further productions of the nature of that which has already rendered him so illustrious.

 

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.