1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Croly

George Gilfillan, in Second Gallery of Literary Characters (1850) 145-60.



Not only is the literary divine not a disgrace to his profession, he is a positive honour. His pulpit becomes an eminence, commanding a view of both worlds. He is a witness at the nuptials of truth and beauty, and the general cause of Christianity is subserved by him in more ways than one; for, first, the names of great men devoted at once to letters and religion neutralise, and more than neutralise, those which are often produced and paraded on the other side; again, they show that the theory of science sanctified, and literature laid down before the Lord, has been proved and incarnated in living examples, and does not therefore remain in the baseless regions of mere hypothesis; and, thirdly, they evince that even if religion be an imposture and a delusion, it is one so plausible and powerful as to have subjugated very strong intellects, and that it will not therefore do for every sciolist in the school of infidelity to pretend contempt for those who confess that it has commanded and convinced them.

Literary divines, next to religious laymen, are the chosen champions of Christianity. We say next to laymen, for when they come forth from their desks, their laboratories, or observatories, and bear spontaneous testimony in behalf of religion, it is as though the earth should help the woman; and the thunder of a Bossuet, a Massillon, a Hall, or a Chalmers breaking from the pulpit does not speak so loud in behalf of our faith as the "still, small voice" issuing from the studious chamber of an Addison, a Boyle, a Bowdler, an Isaac Taylor, and a Cowper. But men who might have taken foremost places in the walks of letters and science, and yet have voluntarily devoted themselves to the Christian cause, and yet continue amid all this devotion tremblingly alive to all the graces, beauties, and powers of literature, are surely standing evidences at least of the sincerity of their own convictions, if not of the truth of that faith on which these convictions centre. And when they openly give testimony to their belief, we listen as if we heard science and literature themselves pronouncing the creed or swearing the sacramental oath of Christianity.

Such an one is Dr. George Croly. He might have risen to distinction in any path he chose to pursue; he has attained wide eminence as a literary man; he has never lost sight of the higher aims of his own profession; and he is now in the ripe autumn of his powers, with redoubled energy and hope, about to dive down in search of new pearls in that old deep which communicates with the omniscience of God. He is projecting at present, and has in part begun, to elaborate three treatises on the patriarchs, the prophets, and the apostles, from which great issues may be expected. Meanwhile we propose rapidly running over the general outline of his merits and works.

Dr. Croly is almost the last survivor of that school of Irish eloquence which included the names of Burke, Sheridan, Grattan, Curran, and Flood. He has most of the merits, and some of the faults of that school. A singular school it has been, when we consider the circumstances and character of the country where it flourished. The most miserable has been the most eloquent of countries. The worst cultivated country has borne the richest crop of flowers of speech. The barrenness of its bogs has been compensated by the rank fertility of its brains. Its groans have been set to a wild and wondrous music — its oratory has been a safety-valve to its otherwise intolerable wrongs. Yet, over all Irish eloquence, and even Irish humour, there hovers a certain shade of sadness. In vain they struggle to smile or to assume an air of cheerfulness. A sense of their country's wretchedness — their Pariah position — the dark doom that seems suspended over everything connected with the Irish name, lowers over and behind them as they speak or write. Amidst the loftiest flights of Burke's speculation, the gayest bravuras of Sheridan's rhetoric, the fieriest bursts of Grattan's or Curran's eloquence, this stamp of the branding-iron — this downward drag of degradation — is never lost sight of or forgotten.

Ireland! art thou a living string of God's great lyre, the earth; or art thou an instrument, thrown aside like a neglected harp, and only valuable for the chance notes of joy or sorrow, mad mirth or despair, which the hands of passengers can discourse upon thee? Art thou only a wayward child of the mighty mother, or art thou altogether a monstrous and incurable birth? Has nature taught thee, thy notes of riant mirth or yet richer pathos, or have torture an tyranny, like cruel arts of hell, awoke within thee those slumbering energies which it were well for thee, had slept for ever? Well for thee it may be, but not for the world; for thy loss has been our gain, and from thy long and living death has flowed forth that long, swelling, sinking, always dying, yet never dead music, which now sounds thy requiem, and may peradventure herald thy future resurrection.

Dr. Croly has not altogether escaped the pervasive gloom of his country's literature. This speaks in the choice of his subjects, and in the lofty, ambitious tone of his manner. He would spring up above the sphere of Ireland's dire attraction! "Farthest from her is best." Irish subjects, therefore, are avoided, although from no want of sympathy with Ireland. Regions either enjoying a profounder calm or torn by nobler agonies than those of Erin, are the chosen fields for his muse. Of his country's wild, reckless humour, always reminding us of the mirth of despairing criminals, singing and dancing out the last dregs of their life, Croly is nearly destitute. For this his genius is too stern and lofty. He does not deal in sheet lightning, but in the forked flashes of a withering and blasting invective. But in richness of figure, in strength of language, in vehemence of passion, and in freedom and force of movement, he is eminently Irish. Stripped, however, he is — partly by native taste, and partly by the friction of long residence in this country — of the more glaring faults of his country's style, its turbulence. exaggeration, fanfaronade, florid diffusion, and that ludicrous pathos which so often, in lieu of tears of grief, elicits tear-torrents of laughter. To use the well-known witticism of Curran, he has so often wagged his tongue in England that he has at last caught its accent, and his brogue is the faintest in the world. The heat of the Irish blood and its wild poetical afflatus he has not sought, nor, if he had, would have been able to relinquish.

Dr. Croly's principal power is that of gorgeous and eloquent description. There are five different species of the describer. The first describes a scene or character as it appears to him, but as it really is not, he having, through weakness of sight, or inaccuracy of observation, missed the reality and substituted a vague something, more cognate to himself than to his object. The second is the literal describer — the bare, bald truth before him is barely and baldly caught, — a certain spirit that hovered over it, as if on wing to fly, having amid the bustling details of the execution been disturbed and scared away. The third is the ideal describer, who catches and arrests that volatile film, expressing the life of life, the gloss of joy, the light of darkness, and the wild sheen of death; in short, the fine or terrible something which is really about the object, but which the eye of the gifted alone can see, even as in certain atmospheres only the rays of the sun are visible. The fourth is the historical describer, who sees and paints objects in relation to their past and future history, who gets so far within the person or the thing as to have glimpses behind and before about it, as if he belonged to it, like a memory or a conscience; and the fifth is the universal describer, who sees the object set in the shining sea of its total bearings, representing in it more or less fully the great whole of which it is one significant part. Thus, suppose the object a tree, one will slump up its character as large or beautiful — words which really mean nothing; another will, with the accuracy of a botanist, analyse it into its root, trunk, branches, and leaves; a third will make its rustle seem the rhythm of a poem; a fourth will see in it, as Cowper in Yardley Oak, its entire history, from the acorn to the axe, or perchance, from the germ to the final conflagration; and a fifth will look on it as a mouth and mirror of the Infinite — a slip of Igdrasil. Or is the object the ocean — one will describe it as vast, or serene, or tremendous, epithets which burden the air but do not exhaust the ocean; another will regard it as a boundless solution of salt; a third will be fascinated by its terrible beauty, as of a chained tiger; a fourth, with a far look into the dim records of its experience, will call it (how different from the foregoing appellations!) the "melancholy main;" and the fifth will see in it the reflector of man's history, the shadow and mad sister of earth — the type of eternity!

These last three orders, if not one, at least slide often into each other, and Dr. Croly appears to us a combination of the third and the fourth. His descriptions are rather those of the poet than of the seer. They are rapid, but always clear, vivid, strong, and eloquent, and over each movement of his pen, an invisible pencil seems to hang and to keep time.

Searching somewhat more accurately for a classification of minds, they seem to us to include five orders — the prophet, the artist, the analyst, the copiast, and the combination in part of all the four. There is, first, the prophet, who receives immediately and gives out unresistingly the torrent of the breath and power of his own soul, which has, become touched by a high and holy influence from behind him. This is no MECHANICAL office; the fact that he is chosen to be such an instrument, itself proclaims his breadth, elevation, power, and patency. There is next the artist, who receives the same influence in a less measure, and who, instead of implicitly obeying the current, tries to adjust, control, and get it to move in certain bounded and modulated streams. There is, thirdly, the analyst, who, in proportion to the faintness in which the breath of inspiration reaches him, is the more desirous to "turn round upon it," to reduce it to its elements, and to trace it to its source. There is, fourthly, the copiast — we coin a term, as he would like to form the far-off sigh of the aboriginal thought, which alone reaches him, into a new and powerful spoken word — but in vain. And there is, lastly, the combination of the whole four — the clever, nay, gifted mimic, whose light energy enables him to circulate between, and to be sometimes mistaken for, them all together.

Dr. Croly is the artist, and in general an accomplished and powerful artist he is. There is sometimes a little of the slapdash in his manner, as of one who is in haste to be done with his subject. His style sometimes sounds like the horse-shoes of the belated traveller, "spurring apace to gain the timely inn." He generally, indeed, goes off at a gallop, and continues at this generous, breakneck pace to the close. He consequently has too few pauses and rests. He and you rush up panting, and arrive breathless at the summit. And yet there is never any thing erratic or ungraceful about the motion of the thought or style. If there be not classical repose there is classical rapture. It is no vulgar intoxication — it is a debauch of nectar; it is not a Newmarket, but a Nemean race.

Dr. Croly's intellectual distinction is less philosophic subtlety, than strong, nervous, and manly sense. This, believed with perfect assurance, inflamed with passion, surrounded with the rays of imagination, and pronounced with a dogmatic force and dignity peculiarly his own, constitutes the circle of his literary character — a circle which also includes large and liberal knowledge, but which has been somewhat narrowed by the influence of views, in our judgment, far too close and conservative. Especially, as we have elsewhere said, whenever he nears the French Revolution he loses temper, and speaks of it in a tone of truculence, as if it were a virulent ulcer and not a salutary blood-letting to the social system — the stir of a dunghill and not the explosion of a volcano — a few earthworms crawling out of their lair, and producing a transient agitation in their native mud, and not a vast Vesuvius moved by infernal torments to cast out the central demon and with open mouth to appeal to Heaven. To Croly this revolution seems more a ray from hell, shooting athwart our system than a mysterious part of it through which earth must roll as certainly as through its own shadow — night; more a retribution of unmitigated wrath than a sharp and sudden surgical application, severe and salutary as cautery itself. Now that we have before us a trinity of such revolutions, we have better ground for believing that they are no anomalous convulsions, but the periodical fits of a singular subject, whom it were far better to watch carefully and treat kindly than to stigmatize or assault. Bishop Butler, walking in his garden with his chaplain, after a long fit of silent thought, suddenly turned round and asked him, if he did not think that nations might get mad as well as individuals. What answer the worthy chaplain made to this question we are not informed, but we suspect that few now would coincide with the opinion of the bishop. Nations are never mad, though often mistaken and often diseased; or if mad, it is a fine and terrible frenzy, partaking of the character of inspiration, and telling, through all its blasphemy and blood, some great truth otherwise a word unutterable to the nations. What said, through its throat of thunder, that first revolution of France? It said that men are men, that "God hath made of one blood all nations who dwell upon the face of the earth," and it proved it, alas! by mingling together in one tide the blood of captains and of kings, of rich and poor, of bond and free: it shattered for ever the notion of men being ninepins for the pleasure of power, and showed them at the least to be gunpowder, a substance always dangerous, and always, if trode on, to be trode on warily. What said the three days of July, 1830? They said, that if austere unlimited tyranny exceed in guilt, diluted and dotard despotism excels in folly, and that the contempt of a people is as effectual as its anger in subverting a throne. And what is the voice with which the world is yet vibrating, as if the sun had been struck audibly and stunned upon his mid-day throne? It is that, as a governing agent, the days of expediency are numbered, and that henceforth not power, not cunning, not conventional morality, not talent, but truth has been crowned monarch of France, and, if the great experiment succeed, of the world.

It is of Dr. Croly as a prose writer principally that we mean to speak. His poetry, though distinguished, and nearly to the same extent, by the qualities of his prose, has failed in making the same impression. The causes of this are various. In the first place, it appeared at a time when the age was teeming to very riot with poetry. Scott, indeed, had betaken himself to prose novels; Southey to histories and articles; Coleridge to metaphysics; Lamb to Elia; and Wordsworth to his Recluse, like the alchemist to his secret furnace. But still, with each new wound in Byron's heart, a new gush of poetry was flowing, and all eyes were watching this martyr of the many sorrows, with the interest of those who are waiting silent or weeping for a last breath; and at the same time a perfect crowd of true poets were finding audience, "fit though few." Wilson, Barry Cornwall, Hogg, Hood, Clare, Cunninghame, Milman, Maturin, Bowles, Crabbe, Montgomery, are some of the now familiar names which were then identified almost entirely with poetical aspirations. Amid such competitors Dr. Croly first raised his voice, and only shared with many of them the fate of being much praised, considerably abused, and little read. Secondly, more than most of his contemporaries, he was subjected to the disadvantage which in a measure pressed on all. All were stars seeking to shine ere yet the sun (that woful blood-spattered sun of Childe Harold) had fairly set. Dr. Croly suffered more from this than others, just because he bore in some points a strong resemblance to Byron, a resemblance which drew forth, both for him and Milman, a coarse and witless assault in Don Juan. And, thirdly, Dr. Croly's poems were chargeable, more than his prose writings, with the want of continuous interest. They consisted of splendid passages, which rather stood for themselves than combined to form a whole. The rich "bugle blooms" were trailed rather than trained about a stick scarce worthy of supporting them, and this, with the monotony inevitable to rhyme, rendered it a somewhat tedious task to climb to the reward which never failed to be met with at last. Paris in 1815, however, was very popular at first; and Cataline copes worthily, particularly in the closing scene of the play, with the character of the gigantic conspirator, whose name even yet rings terribly, as it sounds down from the dark concave of the past.

His prose writings may be divided into three classes: his fictions, his articles in periodicals, and his theological works. We have not read his Tales of the Great St. Bernard, but understand them to be powerful though unequal. His Colonna, the Painter, appeared in Blackwood, and, as a tale shadowed by the deadly lustre of revenge, yet shining in the beauty of Italian light and landscape, may be called an unrhymed Lara. His Marston, or Memoirs of a Statesman, is chiefly remarkable for the sketches of distinguished characters, here and in France, which are sprinkled through it, somewhat in the manner of Bulwer's Devereux, but drawn with a stronger pencil and in a less capricious light. To Danton, alone, we think he has not done justice. On the principle of "ex pede Hercuelem," from the power and savage truth of those colossal splinters of expression, which are all his remains, we had many years ago formed our unalterable opinion, that he was the greatest, and by no means the worst man, who mingled in the melee of the Revolution — the Satan, if Dr. Croly will, and not the Moloch of the Paris Pandemonium — than Robespierre abler — than Marat, that squalid, screeching, out-of-elbows demon, more merciful — than the Girondin champions more energetic — than even Mirabeau stronger and less convulsive; and are glad to find that Lord Brougham has recently been led, by personal examination, to the same opinion. The Danton of Dr. Croly is a hideous compound of dandyism, diabolism, and power — a kind of coxcomb butcher, who with equal coolness arranges his moustaches and his murders, and who, when bearded in the Jacobin Club, proves himself a bully and a coward. The real Danton, so broad and calm in repose, so dilated and Titanic in excitement, who, rising to the exigency of the hour, seemed like Satan, starting from Ithuriel's spear, to grow "into armour," into power and the weapons of power — now uttering words which were "half battles," and now walking silent, and unconscious alike of his vast energies and coming doom, by the banks of his native stream — now pelting his judges with paper bullets, and now laying his head on the block proudly, as if that head were the globe — was long since pointed out by Scott as one of the fittest subjects for artistic treatment, either in fiction or the drama, "worthy," says he, "of Schiller or Shakspere themselves."

Dr. Croly's highest effort in fiction is unquestionably Salathiel. And it is verily a disgrace to an age, which devours with avidity whatever silly or putrid trash popular authors may be pleased to issue — such inane commonplace as Now and Then, where the only refreshing things are the "glasses of wine" which are poured out at the close of every third page to the actors (alas, why not to the readers!), naturally thirsty amid such dry work, or the coarse greasy horrors which abound in the all-detestable Lucretia — that Salathiel has not yet, we fear, more than reached a second edition. It has not, however, gone without its reward. By the ordinary fry of circulating library readers neglected, it was read by a better class, and by none of those who read it forgotten. None but a "literary divine" could have written it. Its style is steeped in Scripture.

But Croly does more than snatch "live coals from off the altar" to strew up on his style; his spirit as well as his language is oriental. You feel yourselves in Palestine, the air is that through which the words of prophets have vibrated and the wings of angels descended — the ground is scarcely yet calm from the earthquake of the crucifixion — the awe of the world's sacrifice, and of the, prodigies which attended it, still lowers over the land — still gapes unmended the ghastly rent in the veil — and still are crowds daily convening to examine the fissure in the rocks, when one lonely man, separated by his proper crime to his proper and unending wo, is seen speeding, as if on the wings of frenzy, toward the mountains of Napthali. It is Salathiel, the hero of this story — the Wandering Jew — the heir of the curse of a dying Saviour, "Tarry thou till I come."

As an artistic conception, we cannot profess much to admire what the Germans call the "Everlasting Jew." The interest is exhausted to some extent by the very title. The subject predicts an eternity of sameness, from which we shrink, and are tempted to call him an everlasting bore. Besides, we cannot well realise the condition of the wanderer as very melancholy, after all. What a fine opportunity must the fellow have of seeing the world, and the glory and the great men thereof! Could one but get up behind him, what "pencillings" could one perpetrate by the "way!" What a triumph, too, has he over the baffled skeleton, death! What a new fortune each century, by selling to advantage his rich "reminiscences!" What a short period at most to wander — a few thousand years, while yonder, the true wanderers, the stars, can hope for no rest! And what a jubilee dinner might he not expect, ere the close, as the "oldest inhabitant," with perhaps Christopher North in the chair, and De Quincey (whom some people suspect, however, of being the said personage himself) acting as croupier! Altogether, we can hardly, without ludicrous emotions, conceive of such a character, and are astonished at the grave face which Shelley, Wordsworth, Mrs. Norton (whose Undying One, by the way, is dead long ago, in, spite of a review, also dead, in the Edinburgh), Captain Medwyn (would he too had died ere he murdered the memory of poor Shelley!), Lord John Russell (who, in his Essays by a Gentleman who had left his Lodgings, has taken a very, very faint sketch of the unfortunate Ahasuerus), and Dr. Croly put on while they talk of his adventures.

The interest of Salathiel, beyond the first splendid burst of immortal anguish with which it opens, is almost entirely irrespective of the character of the Wandering Jew. It is chiefly valuable for its pictures of Oriental scenery, for the glimpses it gives of the cradled Hercules of Christianity, and for the gorgeous imagery and unmitigated vigour of its writing. Plot necessarily there is none; the characters., though vividly depicted, hurry past, like the rocks in the "Walpurgis Night" — are seen intensely for a moment, and then drop into darkness; and the crowding adventures, while all interesting individually, do not gather a deepening interest as they grow to a climax. It is a book which you cannot read quickly, or with equal gusto at all times, but which, like Thomson's Seasons, Young's Night Thoughts, and other works of rich massiveness, yield intense pleasure, when read at intervals, and in moments of poetic enthusiasm.

Dr. Croly's contributions to periodicals are, as might have been expected of various merit. We recollect most vividly his papers on Burke (since collected into a volume), on Pitt, and a most masterly and eloquent outline of the career of Napoleon. This is as rapid, as brief almost and eloquent, as one of Bonaparte's own bulletins, and much more true. It constitutes a rough, red, vigorous chart of his fiery career, without professing to complete philosophically the analysis of his character. This task Emerson lately, in our hearing, accomplished with much ingenuity. His lecture was the portable essence of Napoleon. He indicated his points with the case and precision of a lionshowman. Napoleon, to Emerson, apart from his splendid genius, is the representative of the faults and the virtues of the middle class of the age. We heard some of his auditors contend that he had drawn two portraits instead of one; but in fact Napoleon was two, if not more men. Indeed, if you draw first the bright and then the black side of any character, you have two beings, which the skin and brain of the one actual man can alone fully reconcile. The experience of every one demonstrates at the least a dualism, and who might not almost any day sit down and write a letter, objurgatory, or condoling, or congratulatory, to "my dear yesterday's self?" Each man, as well as Napoleon, forms a sort of Siamese twins — although, in his case, it was matter of thankfulness that the cord could not be cut. Two Napoleons at large had been too much.

Of Dr. Croly's book on the Revelation we have spoken formerly. Under the shadow of that inscrutable pyramid it stands, one of the loftiest attempts to scale its summit and explain its construction; but to us all such seem as yet ineffectual. A more favourable specimen of his theological writing is to be found in his volume of "Sermons" recently published. The public has reason to congratulate itself on the little squable which led to their publication. Some conceited persons, it seems, had thought proper to accuse Dr. Croly of preaching sermons above the heads of his audience, and suggested greater simplicity; and, after a careful perusal of them, we would suggest, even without a public, phrenological examination of those auditors' heads, that, whatever be their situation in life, they are, if unable to understand these discourses, incapable of their duties, are endangering the public, and should be remanded to school. Clearer, more nervous, and, in the true sense of the term, simpler discourses, have not appeared for many years. Their style is in general pure Saxon — their matter strong, manly, and his own — their figures always forcible, and never forced — their theology sound and scriptural — and would to God such sermons were being preached in every church and chapel throughout Britain! They might recall the many wanderers, who, with weary heart and foot, are seeking rest elsewhere in vain, and might counteract that current which is drawing away from the sanctuaries so much of the talent, the virtue, and the honesty of the land.

Dr. Croly, as a preacher, in his best manner, is faithfully represented in those discourses, particularly in his sermons on Stephen, the Theory of Martyrdom, and the Productiveness of the Globe. We admire, in contrast with some modern and ancient monstrous absurdities to the contrary, his idea of God's purpose, in making his universe — not merely to display his own glory, which, when interpreted, means just, like the stated purpose of Caesar, to extend his own name, but to circulate his essence and image — to proclaim himself merciful, even through punishment — and even in hell-flames to write himself down Love, is surely, as Dr. Croly proclaims it, "the chief end" of God! His sermon on Stephen is a noble picture — we had almost said a daguerreotype — of that first martyrdom. His Productiveness of the Globe is richer than it is original. His Theory of Religion is new, and strikingly illustrated. His notion is, that God, in three different dispensations — the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian — has developed three grand thoughts: first, the being of God; secondly, in shadow, the doctrine of atonement; and thirdly, that of immorality. With this arrangement we are not entirely satisfied, but reserve our objections till the "conclusion of the whole matter," in the shape of three successive volumes on each of these periods, and the idea of each, has appeared, as we trust it speedily shall.

We depicted, some time since, in a periodical, our visit to Dr. Croly's chapel, and the impression made by his appearance, and the part of his discourse we heard. It seemed to us a shame to see, the most accomplished clergyman in London preaching to so thin an audience; but perhaps it is accounted for partly by the strictness of his Conservative principles, and partly by the stupid prejudice which exists against all literary divines.

We are sorry we cannot, ere we conclude, supply any particulars about his history. Of its details we are altogether ignorant. In conversation, he is described as powerful and commanding. Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, we remember, describes him as rather disposed to take the lead, but so exceedingly intelligent that you entirely forgive him. He has been, as a literary man, rather solitary and self-asserting — has never properly belonged to any clique or coterie — and seems to possess an austere and somewhat exclusive standard of taste.

It is to us, and must be to the Christian world, a delightful thought, to find such a man devoting the maturity of his mind to labours peculiarly professional; and every one who has the cause of religion at heart must wish him God speed in his present researches. Religion has in its abyss treasures yet unsounded and unsunned, though strong must be the hand, and true the eye, and retentive the breath, and daring yet reverent the spirit of their successful explorer — and such we believe to be qualities possessed by Dr. Croly.