1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:597-600.



JOHN GIBSON LOCKHART, the biographer of his illustrious father-in-law, Sir Walter Scott, and editor of the Quarterly Review, is author of four novels — Valerius, a Roman Story, three volumes, 1821; Adam Blair, one volume, 1822; Reginald Dalton, three volumes, 1823; and Matthew Wald, one volume, 1824.

The first of Mr. Lockhart's productions is the best. It is a tale of the times of Trajan, when that emperor, disregarding the example of his predecessor Nerva, persecuted the small Christian community which had found shelter in the bosom of the Eternal City, and were calmly pursuing their pure worship and peaceful lives. As the blood of the martyr is the seed of the church, the Christians were extending their numbers, though condemned to meet in caves and sepulchres, and forced to renounce the honours and ambition of the world. The hero of the tale visits Rome for the first time at this interesting period. He is the son of a Roman commander, who had settled in Britain, and is summoned to Rome after the deaths of his parents to take possession of an estate to which, as the heir of the Valerii, he had become entitled. His kinsman Licinius, an eminent lawyer, receives him with affection, and introduces him to his friends and acquaintances. We are thus presented with sketches of this domestic society of the Romans, with pictures of the Forum, the baths, temples, and other marvels of Rome, which are briefly, but distinctly and picturesquely delineated. At the villa of Capito, an Epicurean philosopher, Valerius meets with the two fair nieces of his host, Sempronia and Athanasia. The latter is the heroine of the tale — a pure intellectual creation, in which we see united the Roman grace and feminine sweetness of the patrician lady. with the high-souled fortitude and elevation of the Christian. Athanasia has embraced the new faith, and is in close communion with its professors. Her charms overcome Valerius, who soon obtains possession of her secret; and after various adventures, in which he succours the persecuted maiden, and aids in her wonderful escape, he is at length admitted by baptism into the fellowship of the Christians. and embarks with Athanasia for Britain. The materials of such a story are necessarily romantic and impressive. The taste and splendour of ancient Rome present a fertile field for the imagination, and the transition from these to the sufferings, the devotion, and dangers of the early Christians, calls up a different and not less striking train of feelings and associations. In his serious and pathetic scenes the author is most successful. In the low humour of his attendants, the vulgar display of the rich widow, and the servile pedantry of the stoic tutor, there appear to us many sins against good taste. Some of the satirical touches and phrases are also at variance with the purity and elegance of the general strain of the story, and with the consummate art with which the author has wrought up his situations of a tragic and lofty nature, where we are borne along by a deep and steady feeling of refined pleasure, interest, and admiration. One of the most striking scenes in the novel is a grand display at the Flavian amphitheatre, given by the emperor on the anniversary of the day on which he was adopted by Nerva. On this occasion a Christian prisoner is brought forward, either to renounce his faith in the face of the assembly, or to die in the arena. Eighty thousand persons were there met, "from the lordly senators on their silken couches, along the parapet of the arena, up to the impenetrable mass of plebeian heads which skirted the horizon, above the topmost wall of the amphitheatre itself." The scene concludes with the execution of the Christian. In another scene there is great classic grace, united with delicacy of feeling. It describes Athanasia in prison, and visited there by Valerius through the connivance of Silo, the jailer, who belongs to the Christian party:—

"I had hurried along the darkening streets, and up the ascent of the Capitoline, scarce listening to the story of the Cretan. On reaching the summit, we found the courts about the temple of Jupiter already occupied by detachments of foot. I hastened to the Mammertine, and before the postern opened to admit us, the Praetorian squadron had drawn up at the great gate. Sabinus beckoned me to him. 'Caius,' said he, stooping on his horse, 'would to Heaven I had been spared this duty! Cotilius comes forth this moment, and then we go back to the Palatine; and I fear — I fear we are to guard thither your Athanasia. If you wish to enter the prison, quicken your steps.'

"We had scarcely entered the inner-court ere Sabinus also, and about a score of his Praetorians, rode into it. Silo and Boto were standing together, and both had already hastened towards me; but the jailer, seeing the centurion, was constrained to part from me with one hurried word: — 'Pity me, for I also am most wretched. But you know the way; here, take this key, hasten to my dear lady, and tell her what commands have come.'

"Alas! said I to myself, of what tidings am I doomed ever to be the messenger! but she was alone; and how could I shrink from any pain that might perhaps alleviate hers? I took the key, glided along the corridors, and stood once more at the door of the chamber in which I had parted from Athanasia. No voice answered to my knock; I repeated it three times, and then, agitated with indistinct apprehension, hesitated no longer to open it. No lamp was burning within the chamber, but from without there entered a wavering glare of deep saffron-coloured light, which showed me Athanasia extended on her couch. Its ominous and troubled hue had no power to mar the image of her sleeping tranquillity. I hung over her for a moment, and was about to disturb that slumber — perhaps the last slumber of peace and innocence — when the chamber walls were visited with a yet deeper glare. 'Caius,' she whispered, as I stepped from beside the couch, 'why do you leave me? Stay Valerius.' I looked back, but her eyelids were still closed — the same calm smile was upon her dreaming lips. The light streamed redder and more red. All in an instant became as quiet without as within. I approached the window, and saw Cotilius standing in the midst of the court, Sabinus and Silo near him; the horsemen drawn up on either side, and a soldier close behind resting upon an unsheathed sword. I saw the keen blue eye as fierce as ever. I saw that the blood was still fervid in his cheeks; for the complexion of this man was of the same bold and florid brightness so uncommon in Italy, which you have seen represented in the pictures of Sylla; and even the blaze of the torches seemed to strive in vain to heighten its natural scarlet. The soldier had lifted his sword, and my eye was fixed; as by fascination, when suddenly a deep voice was heard amidst the deadly silence — 'Cotilius! — look up Cotilius!'

"Aurelius, the Christian priest, standing at an open window not far distant from that at which I was placed, stretched forth his fettered hand as he spake: — 'Cotilius! I charge thee, look upon the hand from which the blessed water of baptism was cast upon thy head. I charge thee, look upon me, and say, ere yet the blow be given, upon what hope thy thoughts are fixed? Is this sword bared against the rebel of Caesar, or a martyr of Jesus? I charge thee, speak; and for thy soul's sake speak truly.'

"A bitter motion of derision passed over his lips, and he nodded, as if impatiently, to the Praetorian. Instinctively I turned me from the spectacle, and my eye rested again upon the couch of Athanasia — but not upon the vision of her tranquillity. The clap with which the corpse fell upon the stones had perhaps reached the sleeping ear, and we know with what swiftness thoughts chase thoughts in the wilderness of dreams. So it was that she started at the very moment when the blow was given; and she whispered — for it was still but a deep whisper — 'Spare me, Trajan, Caesar, Prince — have pity on my youth — strengthen, strengthen me, good Lord! Fie! fie! we must not lie to save life. Felix — Valerius — come close to me Caius — Fie! let us remember we are Romans — 'Tis the trumpet—'

"The Praetorian trumpet sounded the march in the court below, and Athanasia, starting from her sleep, gazed wildly around the reddened chamber. The blast of the trumpet was indeed in her ear — and Valerius hung over her; but after a moment the cloud of the broken dream passed away, and the maiden smiled as she extended her hand to me from the couch, and began to gather up the ringlets that floated all down upon her shoulder. She blushed and smiled mournfully, and asked me hastily whence I came, and for what purpose I had come; but before I could answer, the glare that was yet in the chamber seemed anew to be perplexing her, and she gazed from me to the red walls, and from them to me again; and then once more the trumpet was blown, and Athanasia sprung from her couch. I know not in what terms I was essaying to tell her what was the truth; but I know, that ere I had said many words, she discovered my meaning. For a moment she looked deadly pale, in spite of all the glare of the torch beams; but she recovered herself, and said in a voice that sounded almost as if it came from a light heart — 'But, Caius, I must not go to Caesar without having at least a garland on my head. Stay here, Valerius, and I shall be ready anon — quite ready.'

"It seemed to me as if she were less hasty than she had promised; yet many minutes elapsed not ere she returned. She plucked a blossom from her hair as she drew near to me, and said, 'Take it: you must not refuse one token more; this also is a sacred gift. Caius, you most learn never to look upon it without kissing these red streaks — these blessed streaks of the Christian flower.'

"I took the flower from her hand and pressed it to my lips, and I remembered that the very first day I saw Athanasia she had plucked such a one when apart from all the rest in the gardens of Capita. I told her what I remembered, and it seemed as if the little circumstance had called up all the image of peaceful days, for once more sorrowfulness gathered upon her countenance. If the tear was ready, however, it was not permitted to drop; and Athanasia returned again to her flower.

"'Do you think there are any of them in Britain?' said she; 'or do you think that they would grow there? You must go to my dear uncle, and he will not deny you when you tell him that it is for my sake he is to give you some of his. They call it the passion-flower — 'tis an emblem of an awful thing. Caius, these purple streaks are like trickling drops; and here, look ye, they are all round the flower. Is it not very like a bloody crown upon a pale brow? I will take one of them in my hand, too, Caius; and methinks I shall not disgrace myself when I look upon it, even though Trajan should be frowning upon me.'

"I had not the heart to interrupt her; but heard silently all she said, and I thought she said the words quickly and eagerly, as if she feared to be interrupted.

"The old priest came into the chamber while she was yet speaking so, and said very composedly, 'Come, my dear child, our friend has sent again for us, and the soldiers have been waiting already some space, who are to convey us to the Palatine. Come, children, we most part for a moment — perhaps it may be but for a moment — and Valerius may remain here till we return to him. Here, at least, dear Caius, you shall have the earliest tidings and the surest.'

"The good man took Athanasia by the hand, and she, scorning now at length more serenely than ever, said only, 'Farewell then, Caius, for a little moment!' And so, drawing her veil over her face, she passed away from before me, giving, I think, more support to the ancient Aurelius than in her turn she received from him. I began to follow them, but the priest waved his hand as if to forbid me. The door closed after thorn, and I was alone."

Adam Blair, or, as the title runs, Some Passages in the Life of Mr. Adam Blair, Minister of the Gospel at Cross-Meikle, is a narrative of the fall of a Scottish minister from the purity and dignity of the pastoral character, and his restoration, after a season of deep penitence and contrition, to the duties of his sacred profession, in the same place which had formerly witnessed his worth and usefulness. The unpleasant nature of the story, and a certain tone of exaggeration and sentimentalism in parts of it, render the perusal of the work somewhat painful and disagreeable, and even of doubtful morality. But Adam Blair is powerfully written, with an accurate conception of Scottish feeling and character, and passages of description equal to any in the author's other works. The tender-hearted enthusiastic minister of Cross-Meikle is hurried on to his downfall "by fate and metaphysical aid," and never appears in the light of a guilty person; while his faithful elder, Julio Maxwell, and his kind friends at Semplehaugh, are just and honourable representatives of the good old Scotch rural classes.

Reginald Dalton is the most extended of Mr. Lockhart's fictions, and gives us more of the "general form and pressure" of humankind and society than his two previous works. The scene is laid in England, and we have a full account of college life in Oxford, where Reginald, the hero, is educated, and where he learns to imbibe port, if not prejudice. The dissipation and extravagance of the son almost ruin his father, an English clergyman; and some scenes of distress and suffering consequent on this misconduct are related with true and manly feeling. Reginald joins in the rows and quarrels of the gownsmen (which are described at considerable length, and with apparently complete knowledge of similar scenes), but he has virtue enough left to fall in love; and the scene where he declares his passion to the fair Helen Hesketh is one of the most interesting and beautiful in the book. A duel, an elopement, the subtlety and craft of lawyers, and the final succession of Reginald to the patrimony of his ancestors, supply the usual excitement for novel readers; but much of this machinery is clumsily managed, and the value of the book consists in its pictures of English modern manners, and in its clear and manly tone of thought and style. The following is a description of an ancient English mansion:—

"They halted to bait their horses at a little village on the main coast of the Palatinate, and then pursued their course leisurely through a rich and level country, until the groves of Grypherwast received them amidst all the breathless splendour of a noble sunset. It would be difficult to express the emotions with which young Reginald regarded, for the first time, the ancient demesne of his race. The scene was one which a stranger, of years and experience very superior to his, might have been pardoned for contemplating with some enthusiasm; but to him the first glimpse of the venerable front, embosomed amidst its 'old contemporary trees,' was the more than realisation of cherished dreams. Involuntarily he drew in his rein, and the whole party as involuntarily following the motion, they approached the gateway together at the slowest pace.

"The gateway is almost in the heart of the village, for the hall of Grypherwast had been reared long before English gentlemen conceived it to be a point of dignity to have no humble roofs near their own. A beautiful stream runs hard by, and the hamlet is almost within the arms of the princely forest, whose ancient oaks, and beeches, and gigantic pine-trees darken and ennoble the aspect of the whole surrounding region. The peasantry, who watch the flocks and herds in those deep and grassy glades, the fishermen, who draw their subsistence from the clear waters of the river, and the woodmen, whose axes resound all day long among the inexhaustible thickets, are the sole inhabitants of the simple place. Over their cottages the hall of Grypherwast has predominated for many long centuries, a true old northern manor-house, not devoid of a certain magnificence in its general aspect, though making slender pretensions to anything like elegance in its details. The central tower, square, massy, rude, and almost destitute of windows, recalls the knightly and troubled period of the old Border wars; while the overshadowing roofs, carved balconies, and multifarious chimneys scattered ever the rest of the building, attest the successive influence of many more or less tasteful generations. Excepting in the original baronial tower, the upper parts of the house are all formed of oak, but this with such an air of strength and solidity as might well shame many modern structures raised of better materials. Nothing could be more perfectly in harmony with the whole character of the place than the autumnal brownness of the stately trees around. The same descending rays were tinging with rich lustre the outlines of their bare trunks, and the projecting edges of the old-fashioned bay-windows which they sheltered; and some reeks of very old family were cawing overhead almost in the midst of the hospitable smoke-wreaths. Within a couple of yards from the door of the house an eminently respectable. looking old man, in a powdered wig and very rich livery of blue and scarlet, was sitting on a garden chair with a pipe in his mouth, and a cool tankard within his reach upon the ground."

The tale of Matthew Wald is related in the first person, and this hero experiences a great variety of fortune. He is not of the amiable or romantic school, and seems to have been adopted (in the manner of Godwin) merely as a medium for portraying strong passions and situations in life. The story of Matthew's first love, and some of the episodical narratives of the work, are interesting and ably written. There is also much worldly shrewdness and observation evinced in the delineation of some of the scenes and characters; but on the whole, it is the poorest of Mr. Lockhart's novels. The awkward improbable manner in which the events are brought about, and the carelessness and inelegance of the language in many places, are remarkable in a writer of critical habits and high attainments as a scholar. Mr. Lockhart, we suspect, like Sheridan, requires time and patient revision to bring out fully his conceptions, and nevertheless is often tempted or impelled to hurry to a close.

Mr. Lockhart is a native of the city of Glasgow, son of the late Rev. John Lockhart, minister of the College Church. He was educated at the university of his native city, and, in consequence of his superiority in his classes, was selected as one of the two students whom Glasgow college sends annually to Oxford, in virtue of an endowment named "Snell's Foundation." Having taken his degree, Mr. Lockhart repaired to Edinburgh, and applied himself to the study of the law. He entered at the bar, but was quickly induced to devote himself chiefly to literature. Besides the works we have mentioned, Mr. Lockhart was a regular contributor to Blackwood's Magazine, and imparted to that work a large portion of the spirit, originality, and determined political character which it has long maintained. In 1820 he was married to Sophia, the eldest daughter of Sir Walter Scott, a lady who possessed much of the conversational talent, the unaffected good humour, and liveliness of her father. Mrs Lockhart died on the 17th of May 1837, in London, whither Mr. Lockhart had gone in 1825 to reside as successor to Mr. Gifford in the editorship of the Quarterly Review.