1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Horace Walpole

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:176; 249-50.



In 1764 HORACE WALPOLE revived the Gothic romance in his interesting little story, The Castle of Otranto, which he at first published anonymously, as a work found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England, and printed at Naples in the black letter in 1529. "I wished it to be believed ancient," he said, "and almost everybody was imposed upon." The tale was so well received by the public, that a second edition was soon called for, to which the author prefixed his name. Though designed to blend the two kinds of romance — the ancient, in which all was imagination and improbability, and the modern, in which nature is copied, the peculiar, taste of Walpole, who loved to "gaze on Gothic toys through Gothic glass," and the nature of his subject, led him to give the preponderance to the antique. The ancient romances have nothing more incredible than a sword which required a hundred men to lift it; a helmet, that by its own weight forces a passage through a court-yard into an arched vault, big enough for a man to go through; a picture that walks out of its frame, or a skeleton's ghost in a hermit's cowl. Where Walpole has improved on the incredible and mysterious, is in his dialogues and style, which are pure and dramatic in effect, and in the more delicate and picturesque tone which he has given to chivalrous manners. Walpole was the third son of the Whig minister, Sir Robert Walpole; was born in 1717, became fourth Earl of Orford 1791, and died in 1797; having not only outlived most of his illustrious contemporaries, but recorded their weaknesses and failings, their private history and peculiarities, in his unrivalled correspondence....

HORACE WALPOLE, the author of the Castle of Otranto, already noticed, would have held but an insignificant place in British literature, if it had not been for his Correspondence and Memoirs, those pictures of society and manners, compounded of wit and gaiety, shrewd observation, sarcasm, censoriousness, high life, and sparkling language. His situation and circumstances were exactly suited to his character and habits. He had in early life travelled with his friend Gray, the poet, and imbibed in Italy a taste for antiquity and the arts, fostered, no doubt, by the kindred genius of Gray, who delighted in ancient architecture and in classic pursuits. He next tried public life, and sat in parliament for twenty-six years. This added to his observation of men and manners, but without increasing his reputation, for Horace Walpole was no orator or statesman. His aristocratic habits prevented him from courting distinction as a general author, and he accordingly commenced collecting antiques, building a baronial castle, and chronicling in secret his opinions and impressions of his contemporaries. His income, from sinecure offices and private sources, was about £4000 per annum; and, as he was never married, his fortune enabled him, under good management and methodical arrangement, to gratify his tastes as a virtuoso. When thirty years old, he had purchased some land at Twickenham, near London, and here he commenced improving a small house, which by degrees swelled into a feudal castle, with turrets, towers, galleries, and corridors, windows of stained glass, armorial bearings, and all the other appropriate insignia of a Gothic baronial mansion. Who has not heard of Strawberry Hill — that "little plaything house," as Walpole styled it, in which were gathered curiosities of all descriptions, works of art, rare editions, valuable letters, memorials of virtue and of vice, of genius, beauty, taste, and fashion, mouldered into dust! This valuable collection is now (1842) scattered to the winds — dispersed at a public sale.

Enough to rouse the dead man into rage,
And warm with red resentment the wan cheek.

The delight with which Walpole contemplated this suburban retreat, is evinced in many of his letters. In one to General Conway (the only man he seems ever to have really loved or regarded), he runs on in this enthusiastic manner: — "You perceive that I have got into a new camp, and have left my tub at Windsor. It is a little plaything house that I have got out of this Chevenix's shop [Strawberry Hill had been occupied by Mrs. Chevenix, a toywoman!], and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw. It is set in enamelled meadows, with filigree hedges;

A small Euphrates through the piece is rolled,
And little fishes wave their wings of gold.

Two delightful roads, that you would call dusty, supply me continually with coaches and chaises; and barges, as solemn as barons of the Exchequer, move under my window. Richmond Hill and Ham Walks bound my prospect; but, thank God! the Thames is between me and the Duchess of Queensberry. Dowagers, as plenty as flounders, inhabit all around; and Pope's ghost is just now skimming under my window by a most poetical moonlight."

The literary performances with which Walpole varied his life at Strawberry Hill are all characteristic of the man. In 1758 appeared his Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors; in 1761 his Anecdotes of Painting in England; in 1765 his Castle of Otranto; and in 1767 his Historic Doubts as to the character and person of Richard III. He left for publication Memoirs of the Court of George II., and a large collection of copies of his letters; and he printed at his private press (for among the collections at Strawberry Hill was a small printing establishment) his tragedy of the Mysterious Mother. A complete collection of his letters was printed in 1841, in six volumes. The writings of Walpole are all ingenious and entertaining, and though his judgments on men and books or passing events are often inaccurate, and never profound, it is impossible not to be amused by the liveliness of his style, his wit, his acuteness, and even his malevolence. "Walpole's Letters," says Mr. Macaulay, "are generally considered as his best performances, and, we think, with reason. His faults are far less offensive to us in his correspondence than in his books. His wild, absurd, and ever-changing opinions of men and things are easily pardoned in familiar letters. His bitter scoffing depreciating disposition does not show itself in so unmitigated a manner as in his Memoirs. A writer of letters must be civil and friendly to his correspondent at least, if to no other person." The variety of topics introduced is no doubt one cause of the charm of these compositions, for every page and almost every sentence turns up something new and the whim of the moment is ever with Walpole a subject of the greatest importance. The peculiarity of his information, his private scandal, his anecdotes of the great, and the constant exhibition of his own tastes and pursuits, furnish abundant amusement to the reader. Another Horace Walpole, like another Boswell, the world has not supplied, and probably never will.