1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Isaac D'Israeli

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 2:373-78.



Another writer who flourished in the end of the century, a little preceding some of those here mentioned, has a special interest for us, not only for his own productions, but for the strange genius mixed with much alloy, but yet genius still — more remarkable than any other of his father's works — who has descended to us from him. Isaac Disraeli was the son of a Jew, not of the merely moneyed kind, with which we are most familiar, but of those who boast a high European lineage, as well as the misty honours of Eastern centuries. The family, according to the account given by its last distinguished member, had gone from Spain to Venice in the fifteenth century, where it adopted, in gratitude for its escape from Torquemada and the Inquisition, the name of Disraeli, "a name never borne before or since by any other family." The father of Lord Beaconsfield sprang from a race of keen and successful merchants, but was himself most strangely unlike them, a dreamy recluse and student, breaking all the traditions of his family with such an obstinate if gentle and sentimental impracticability, that nothing was possible but to leave him to the pursuit of his studies and fancies. From his childhood he showed himself "doomed his father's soul to cross;" and his mother was a passionate and discontented personage, who had "imbibed a dislike for her race," and was "so mortified by her social position, that she lived until eighty without indulging in a tender expression" — a most uncomfortable parent. The young Isaac, after an unhappy childhood, drove his father frantic by "producing a poem," which seemed to the wealthy merchant to promise only beggary and ruin to his only child. "The unhappy poet was consigned like a bale of goods" to the correspondent of the firm at Amsterdam. When he returned at eighteen he was "a disciple of Rousseau," burning to prove himself the most sentimental and tender of sons to the mother whose indifference he had probably forgotten. But when he would have flung himself upon her bosom, the lady "burst into derisive laughter," ridiculing at once himself and his appearance, which was eccentric and unusual. "Whereupon," says his son, "Emile, of course, went into heroics, wept, sobbed, and finally, shut up in his chamber, composed an impassioned epistle. My grandfather, to soothe him, dwelt on the united solicitude of his parents for his welfare, and broke to him their intention, if it was agreeable to him, to place him in the establishment of a great merchant at Bordeaux. My father replied that he had written a poem of considerable length which he wished to publish, against Commerce, which was the corruption of man!

The impracticable youth, however, was not always persecuted: such parental severities can last only for a time, and though the gentle sufferer in this rich household was not over happy, yet by and by he emancipated himself. His first publication was some "polished and pointed" verses on the Abuse of Satire, aimed at the famous "Peter Pindar" Wolcot, then maintaining a free fight against all the powers that were. The "effusion" had such success as was possible, enough to fill the journals and startle the stern parents with their son's fame. Shortly after he made the acquaintance, of young Samuel Rogers, then gaining his little reputation as a poet, and of "Mr. Pye" — a celebrity whom even the encyclopaedias scorn, and of whom we know nothing save that he was Poet-Laureate (!) before Southey took and vindicated the office. He was "a master of correct versification," Lord Beaconsfield says. Young Disraeli did not reach even so far as young Rogers on the soft little slopes of Parnassus, but he was led to the odd byway of literature in which he gained his reputation, by means of a residence in Exeter, which brought him into the literary circle then flourishing there. Here, as so often before, a new and gentle group of amateur writers opens upon us once more. Exeter, like Lichfield, was full of gentlemen who could all compose agreeable verses, the chief among them being Dr. Downman, "a poet and physician, and the best of men." The names of Hole and of Hayter say little to posterity, and of all the group the only well-known name is that of the composer Jackson, who was also, according to Lord Beaconsfield, "an author of high aesthetical speculation." "It was said," the same authority adds, "that the two principal if not sole organs of periodical criticism at that time, I think the Critical Review and the Monthly Review, were principally supported by Exeter contributions." It is not usual nowadays to find a little local school of letters in every country town, and society is no longer parcelled out into pieces, but hangs together from one centre in a way perhaps more complete but not so picturesque as of old; but it is curious to find starting up about us, as we pursue our investigations, another and another long-forgotten circle, all conscious of excellence, and many perhaps looking for nothing less than immortality.

Isaac Disraeli was, as has been said, a poet to begin with, like so many of his compeers. The, kind and good Sir Walter, with that capacious memory in which all kinds of strays and waifs found refuge, and with that genial desire to give everybody he met pleasure, which in him was never insincere, met the collector of literary curiosities years after, with the delightful compliment of "reciting a poem of half-a-dozen stanzas," which Disraeli had written in this early period. "Not altogether without agitation," says his biographer, "surprise was expressed that the lines should have been known, still more that they should have been remembered." "Ah!" said Sir Walter, "if the writer of these lines had gone on, he would have been an English poet."

This, however, whether he could or could not have attained it, was not to be. Chance directed him to the quiet byways of literature, in which he achieved a mild but complete success. The Curiosities Of Literature is more interesting than many a book of higher pretensions, and some of Mr. Disraeli's essays were good and able: but, perhaps, had not his son arisen greater than he, we should have thought less of the father: and granting the interest of his chief publication, there is no sort of greatness in it, nor original power. The character of the man, however, as given by his son, affords us a very clear and concise sketch of the literary workman. "He had not a single passion or prejudice," says this unquestionable authority. "He disliked business, and he never required relaxation. He rose to enter the chamber where he lived alone with his books, and at night his lamp was ever lit within the same walls. In London his only amusement was to ramble among booksellers. In the country he scarcely ever left his room but to saunter in abstraction upon a terrace, muse over a chapter, or coin a sentence." He had arrived at the mature age of forty-five "before his career as a great author influencing opinions really commenced." The reader at this distance will perhaps imagine, wonderingly, whether that career ever commenced at all. He lived to be a very old man, like so many of the subjects of this history. Great genius may exhaust and wear out, though chiefly when associated with great passions; but a little genius is a wonderfully safe and comfortable possession. It gives interest to life whatever maybe its burdens, and cheers the weary years. Disraeli published some historical books, one of them an elaborate work on the Life and Reign of Charles I., and various essays, one of which, the Essay on Literary Character, his son considers "the most perfect of his compositions," besides many shorter articles. But the work by which he will be known is the Curiosities of Literature, though it is neither the most ambitious nor the most serious of his productions.