1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Review of Byrdges, Autobiography; Edinburgh Review 59 (July 1834) 439-45.



We have read this work with feelings of considerable pain. It presents to us an elaborate picture of a species of literary character, that may be expected to appear, at times, in that heated and high-wrought civilisation, to which the world has attained; — a character that has all the acute sensibilities of poetical genius, without its energy and its power — its irritable temper — its wayward self-engrossment — its early relinquishment of the common pleasures of life, for one feverish and jealous object. This is often a painful picture, even when, as in the case of Byron or Rousseau, it is gilded with all the glory of success, placed in the long gallery of fame, and destined to become immortal. But how much deeper is the pain with which we gaze on these melancholy colours, when we feel them fading as we gaze; or when we know that in a little while the picture will be thrown aside, amidst the lumber of the age, to perish and be forgotten. — All these visionary repinings in which happiness is lost — this morbid susceptibility to the opinion which a no less morbid pride affects to disdain — this sacrifice of health, both of frame and heart — this dreaming youth — this unsocial manhood — this dissatisfied, yet still enterprising old age, — the aching brow without the laurel wreath the torments of Rousseau without his triumphs! What object more sad or more impressive, in the complex calamities of authorship, ever seemed to present itself to our survey? Yet, no doubt, we exaggerate the melancholy of the prospect. He who feels most the peculiar pains, feels most the peculiar pleasures of the poet: no matter what the silence of the crowd, his own heart is never silent; it whispers fame to the last. His statue is not in the market-place. For that very reason he expects the chaplet for his tomb. The author before us, for example, is as intimately persuaded of the reality of his powers, of the solidity of his reputation, as if the loud huzzas of the literary world were borne to his retreat. The "amabilis insania" (the delusion is too proud, too strong for ordinary vanity) cheats, soothes, flatters, to the verge of the abyss. All that criticism could prove, all that neglect severest of all critics — could teach, fall vain and unheeded on the sons of a nature of this mould. Nursed in the tastes and habits of genius, it mistakes the tastes for the capacities; in the habits (making now no mistake) it feels its reward; and if the individual author were the sole concern of the critic, here might we stop at once, leaving him in undisturbed possession of a delusion it would be idle and cruel to destroy. But criticism has a more catholic and comprehensive duty it seeks less to correct the author, than to instruct his kind. Criticism is literature teaching by examples; and therefore, we have selected this work, dealing with it as gently as we may, for the occasion it proffers us, to warn others to avoid, while it may yet be time, the errors which it is now too late to indicate to the subject of these memoirs. We have allowed, that a certain degree of happiness is to be found in the mere cultivation of literary tastes, and the self-esteem which they engender — even where unattended by the fame and success, which was, perhaps, the guiding motive, and promised to be the certain meed. But is that happiness enough? May not certain self-indulgences greatly lessen and embitter it? This is the question which our Autobiographer suggests to us. We would wish to derive that happiness from the purest and noblest sources; to diminish, as much as possible, the "quidquid amari" — its countervailing pains; — to chasten its nature, while we augment its degree.

It cannot be denied, that no inconsiderable proportion of our literary men, immediately preceding the present day, have been more or less characterised by those feelings, too acute and sensitive, which incline us to the Unsocial. Sometimes the disease is mild and gentle in its symptoms — sometimes dark and gloomy sometimes it is but reserve; at others misanthropy. The weak but kindly Shenstone — perhaps the most amiable specimen of the morbid species of literary character — appears never to have suffered disappointment to corrupt into uncharitableness. He could not, as Sir Egerton Brydges has done — and this is the most inexcusable infirmity his work displays — gratify general grudges by individual acerbity. Both lived much in the country; both suffered from the rude contact of "rural thanes;" both, — probably, with equal want of candour, — complain of the uncongeniality of their neighbours, without reflecting that the literary man often is the first to commence offence, and the most stubborn to resent it. With a little tact, and a little good humour, we believe there are few societies, however rustic, which a man of intellectual cultivation will not propitiate. Men feel jealousy, not towards those who differ from them in pursuits, but towards those who attempt to rival them in the same career; and the merits of a man of letters, in a neighbourhood where men of letters are scarce, will, if he bear his honours meekly, be more exaggerated, than depreciated. In his very complaints of the boors around him, Sir Egerton Brydges inadvertently and unconsciously confesses him self to blame. He admits that his own manners "were not very conciliatory;" he admits that his society was "a wet sheet" to the country squires: then why be so angry at their imitating the example of constraint and coldness that he set himself? why — and this is our especial accusation against Sir Egerton Brydges — why indulge an unworthy and bygone spleen? why rake up the decent obscurity of private life ? why drag forward, with all particulars of home and circumstances, persons of whose very existence the world till now neither knew nor cared? why manure his pages with the bones of the humble dead? why tell us that Mrs. — (we do not give additional publicity to the name thus unhandsomely traduced) "was a virago — the most garrulous, vain, foolish, presumptuous, and ill-tempered of women?" The same law that makes public property of public names, forbids, to a high and generous mind, the posthumous gibbeting of obscure and private foes. This, which we have just quoted, is not a solitary instance of spleen; the volumes of our Autobiographer display many instances of an equally small vengeance and poor injustice. Whoever does not acknowledge his pretensions, whether to Parnassus or a Peerage, are equally hateful to the eyes of Sir Egerton Brydges. He does not deem it possible that those who voted in the House of Lords against his claim, could be actuated by other than unworthy motives: some are ungrateful — others envious — all commonplace in ability, or questionable in birth.

There is this consequence of a moody and absorbed concentration in self; — it vitiates the whole character: learn to consider yourself alone; make yourself a god; and you deem all who dispute your pretensions little better than blasphemers. You are like the ancient geographers ridiculed by Plutarch, who drew out a map of the little territory that was known to them; and to all beyond, applied the description of impassable sands, or horrid wastes. Yourself — your pursuits — your circle — your admirers, are your chart; beyond, are only

The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders;—

and this habit of isolation of thought and heart gradually destroys as much of the charm of genius as of the dignity of character. So it is with the complaints of Sir Egerton Brydges — complaints it is impossible to sympathize in, because they are wholly selfish. There is ever something generous in true pathos; it either asks us to sympathize for a loss that affects more than the mourner, or it interests us in the mourner, by showing us that his sorrow is not purely selfish. Rousseau, in the most egotistical of his lamentations, always seduces us into a belief of his benevolence for others; and reveals the glimpses of a nature in which the genial and kindly feelings appear not stilled but perverted. Byron, when he moans for Thyrza, affects us to sympathy with himself, by a sympathy with the love or the loveliness of the dead. Not less, in the gloomiest passages of Childe Harold, are the selfish grief's of the poet exalted by frequent bursts of sympathy with the misfortunes or the doings of the world — with the struggles of the free with the vexations of the wise — with the disappointments of the impassioned. But, in Sir Egerton Brydges, the lamentations are solely for self, and for selfish objects — a poem neglected, or a peerage refused. Nor does he ever seek to connect sympathy with himself by sympathy with others. We know nothing of the family — the wife — the children — of Sir Egerton Brydges. He does not burst forth with apostrophes, which every lover — every husband — every father can feel in his heart of hearts. To his "Night Thoughts," there is no Narcissa; for his Pilgrimage, no Ada. Once only he seems aroused into a lukewarm lamentation for a friend, and the few words in which he mentions the death of Lord Tenterden are really the most pathetic in his book. We would warn, then, by this example — the example of a man of elegant tastes, and, doubtless, (for perhaps all poets are) of original and early kindness of disposition — the younger race from self-indulgence and self-absorption, which make martyrs of the intellect as well as of the heart.

It is not that egotism is in itself revolting, nor the love of solitude in itself a disease ; it is the abuse and perversion of both that are dangerous and unworthy. A certain degree of self-esteem is not only natural to all lofty minds, but it is necessary to their exertions. Without it we are echoes of all vulgar cries — the hangers-on and creatures of the crowd. We neither love nor honour Milton the less for his august and frequent reference to himself — a reference more frequent in his prose writings than in his verse. Perhaps in the whole history of literature, there is no passage more egotistical or less selfish than the following: — "For the world, I count it not as an inn, but a hospital; and a place not to live but die in. The world that I regard is myself. It is the microcosm of mine own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other, I use it, but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation. Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition and fortunes, do err in my altitude, for I am above Atlas his shoulders." — (Here follows the high excuse for this lofty self-exaltation.) The earth is a point, not only in respect of the heavens above us, but of that heavenly and celestial part within us. That mass of flesh that circumscribes me, limits not my mind. That surface that tells the heavens they have an end, cannot persuade me I have any. I take my circle to be above three hundred and sixty. Though the number of the arc do measure my body, it comprehendeth not my mind. Whilst I study to find how I am a microcosm, or little world, I find myself something more than the great. There is surely a piece of divinity to us — something that was before the elements, and owing no homage unto the sun. He that understands not thus much, hath not his introductions or first lesson, and is yet to begin the alphabet of man."

In this magnificent passage — "a solemn procession of purple thought" — who will not allow that the self-esteem is the charm? That self-esteem dignifies us as well as its object, — we are elevated with its elevation — we are called upon to sympathize with an egotist who reveals to us our nature as well as his own; — we are raised to a sense of our own majesty by contemplating that of another —what he is, that are we; — "something that was before the elements, and owes no homage to the sun." It is not then that either in self-esteem, or in egotism, which is often its expression, there is any thing degrading in itself. To confess is no shame; — shame is in that which we confess. When, therefore, it is the natural inclination of genius to reveal its nature, its thoughts, sentiments, or sufferings, it is as foolish as it is vain for criticism to resist the inclination: all that we can suggest is this — the man who does betray the mysteries of his own soul, should study to keep the temple pure and holy; and should ask our sympathy, not because he has thought, nor because he has suffered, but because he has thought deeply and suffered nobly.

But if, in the indulgence of egotism, there be nothing in itself to blame or to contemn, — if, on the contrary, it is this autobiography of opinion, and of thought, which often constitutes one of the most valuable and charming portions of literature, — if we wish indeed with a restless longing that it had been a more frequent habit of mind with our great authors, — and if we still search laboriously through the sonnets of Shakspeare — through the correspondence of Montesquieu — through the Latin verses of Milton — for every allusion, every avowal, that makes us more intimately acquainted with the workings of their souls, — still less can we affect to disdain or impugn a more frequent and necessary literary passion — the love of solitude; — a love natural to all contemplative natures — a habit not necessarily selfish in itself: its uses are noble — its abuse only dangerous. It is a bath to the mind relaxed in the feverish atmosphere of crowds; it braces the nerves of the intellect — it renews its vigour. But then we are not always to live in a bath, which strengthens in moderation, weakens in excess. Properly considered, the use of occasional retirement from the world is not to sever, but to confirm the ties that bind us to others. The literary character is necessarily sensitive ; so much are its efforts connected with the love of esteem, that it is easily susceptible to mortification — it magnifies annoyance — it imagines slights—

it shapes
By choice the perils it by chance escapes.

Hence the wholesome effect of retiring at times from the great mart of competition. The calm restores us: at a distance we review the causes which humbled or enraged, and wonder to find that the spectre vanishes, in the clearer light by which it is now examined; and as the desire of fame returns, so also returns our legitimate benevolence for those who proportion that fame in proportion to its utility to them. It was from that cavern, yet to be seen in the time of Plutarch, to which Demosthenes retired, that the great author emerged with new heart and vigour, to thunder forth those divine sympathies with the liberties of mankind which are still the inspirers of public virtue. Viewed in this light, solitude is the nurse of action — no less advantageous than natural to the energies of genius. But a solitude that is the aliment of misanthropy — the den of hatred — the mephitic and noisome cave from which evil oracles are emitted — is the retreat, not of genius, but of envy, which is at war with genius. "There is," said Cowley, "the solitude of a god, and the solitude of a wild beast." It was a noble comment by one addicted himself to solitude, and comprehending all its uses, upon that affected saying of Pythagoras, that he was a "spectator of life." — "Men," said Lord Bacon, "ought to know, that in the theatre of human life it is only for God and angels to be spectators."

We have made these remarks, first, in reference to those who, justly incensed at the maudlin of modern poetasters, have argued against what are vitally necessary to many natures — a confessional and a hermitage; and secondly, as a warning to others who would devote the uses to abuse. We have said, that however inglorious the result, and however embittered by our own failings, there is always something of happiness in the pursuits of literature. But it is easy to perceive how much purer and how much greater that happiness may be made by the temper of the student — by a constant resistance to all the petty and disturbing passions of spleen and envy — by a watchful restraint of that all-exacting and never-compromising disposition which sensitive minds, in search of the Ideal, are too liable to form. It is impossible for some natures to be social, but all may be benevolent. And it is astonishing what innumerable sources of happiness we open to ourselves, by compelling the mind, even in calm and retirement, to take an interest in the stir and action of the world. This interest preserves us from all the stagnation and selfishness of solitude: it ennobles success, it consoles for failure. And failure, indeed, is less common to persons of this habit of mind; for it requires a great genius to embellish the Morose. But the Genial adorns itself; and a man resolved to be useful is sure to accomplish his object.

We trust that these remarks occur somewhat in season; for we think we recognise in the rising generation of literary men a more wholesome and masculine frame of mind than that which characterised a large number of their immediate predecessors. And in proportion as the political constitution becomes more popular, genius of every description is, perhaps, insensibly compelled to become more social. One of the results of the Reform Bill was, that it threw men of letters, desirous of entering public life, at once upon the people, — familiarizing both the candidate and the crowd with the pretensions and qualities of either; and yet this audacity in a student was deemed so impossible by the advocates of the old system, that it was urged as one of the inestimable advantages of close boroughs, that through them, and through them alone, could men of literature and science be returned to Parliament; as if it were desirable to foster in them that fastidiousness and reserve which necessarily diminish their utility in active life. He who shrinks from the roar of the Hustings, will probably shrink no less from the eye of the Speaker. The advocates for the old system, under pretence of kindness to the character of the student, were nursing the very qualities that were to secure his failure. But the main advantages of an enlarged political circle, in connexion with the pursuits of the scholar, are less in alluring him from his closet to public life, — (for in that the public may lose as often as it may gain,) — than in familiarizing his ear and his heart with the affairs of the actual world. The agitation, the stir, the ferment, — the lively, the unceasing, the general interest in political concerns, which it is the nature of popular governments to create, — meet him in every circle; insensibly they force themselves on his meditations — they colour his studies — they transfuse their spirit into his compositions. This it was which so singularly characterised the literature of Athens; bringing in close contact the statesman and the student, — giving vitality to the dream of the poet, and philosophy to the harangues of the orator. And by a necessary reaction, the same causes which render the man of letters more interested in the affairs of men of action, interest the men of action in the aims and character of men of letters. The connexion is as serviceable to the world as to the scholar; it corrects the dreaminess of the last, — it refines the earthlier calculations of the first; and thus popular institutions insensibly become the medium of exchange, which barter and transfer from the most distant quarters, the most various commodities in the intellectual commerce of mankind.