1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gibson Lockhart

George Gilfillan, "John Gibson Lockhart" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 431-42.



There is a certain stern, masculine, and caustic type of mind, which is, we think, disappearing from the higher walks of our literature. It is as if the English element were departing from the English mind, and were being exchanged, partly for good and partly for evil, for an infusion of foreign blood. Our national peculiarities of thought are fast melting down into the great general stream of European literature. Where now that rugged Saxon strength, sagacity, and sarcastic vein — that simple manly style — that clear logical method — that dogged adherence to the point in hand — that fearless avowal of national prejudices, hatreds, and contempts — that thoroughgoing insular spirit which distinguished the Drydens, the Swifts, and, in part, the Johnsons of a bygone period? They are, in a great measure, gone; and in their stead we have the vagueness, the mistiness, the exaggeration, the motley and mosaic diction, along with the earnestness, the breadth, and the cosmopolitanism, "wide and general as the casing air," of Germany, transferred or transfused into our English tongue. It were vain to protest against, or to seek to retard, an influence which is fast assuming the character of an irresistible infection. There is no disguising the fact. For better or for worse, our poetry and our prose, our history and our criticism, our profane and our sacred literature, are fast charging with Germanism, as clouds with thunder. Be this potent element a devil's elixir, or the wine of life, the thinkers of both Britain and America seem determined to dare the experiment of draining its cup to the dregs. And at this stage of the trial, it is enough for us to note the pregnant fact, and also to record the names of those among our higher writers, who have kept themselves clear from, if they have not opposed and counteracted, this "mighty stream of tendency."

Prominent among these stand Byron, Southey, Macaulay, and Lockhart, who all, amid their variety of gifts, are distinguished by an intense Anglicanism of spirit and style. Byron — spurned by England, and spurning England in return — yet bore with him into his banishment all the peculiarities of his country's literature: its directness, its dogmatism, its clearness, and its occasional caprice. And never is he so heartily and thoroughly English as when he is denouncing or ridiculing the land of his fathers. It is impossible to conceive of him, in any circumstances, sinking down to the level of an Italian improvisatore, or subliming into a German mystic, or of being aught but what he was, — a strange compound of English blackguard, English peer, and English poet. His knowledge of German was limited; and even when he stole from it, it was what it had stolen from the elder authors of England. His admiration of Goethe was about as genuine and profound as a schoolboy's of Homer, who has read a few pages of the Iliad in Greek, and has not read Pope's or Cowper's translation. And though he talked of writing his magnum opus in Italian, after he had fully mastered the language, it was easy to perceive that to his "land's language" he in reality desired to commit the perpetuity of his fame, and that England was the imaginary theatre before which he went through his attitudes of enthusiasm, and assumed his postures of despair. Southey, again, in creed, in character, in purpose, in genius, and in diction, was English to exclusiveness. Macaulay's writings, starred so richly with allusions to every other part of every other literature, do not, we are positive, above half-a-dozen times, recognise the existence of the German, — a single sneer is all he vouchsafes to our modern Germanised English authors: his strongest sympathies are with our native literature; and his sharp, succinct, and nervous manner, is the exact antithesis of that which is the rage of the Continent. And Lockhart, the subject of this notice, though he is versant with foreign tongues — though he has translated from the Spanish, has travelled in Germany, and gazed on the Jove-like forehead of the author of Faust, was, is, and is likely to continue a Saxon to the backbone.

We had almost called Lockhart the Dryden of his day. Certainly, he has much of glorious John's robust and careless strength of style, and of his easy and vaulting vigour of versification. Like Dryden, too, whether lauding his friends, or vituperating his foes — whether applying the caustic of satire, or inditing the fiery lyric — whether bursting into brief and chary raptures, or sneering behind the back of his own enthusiasm, he is always manly, measured, disdainful alike of petty faults and petty beauties. Like Dryden, he is never greater than when, in translation or adaptation, he is rekindling the embers of other writers. Like Dryden, he is never or rarely caught into the "seventh heaven of invention:" he is sometimes majestic, but never sublime; and has little pure passion, no dramatic vein, and but occasional command over the fountain of tears. From Dryden, however, he differs in this, that while he is equally good at reasoning in rhyme, or expressing didactic truth, as at painting character or scenery, Lockhart's great strength lies in picturesque and powerful description of the oddities of character, of the darker vagaries of the human heart, or of the broader and more general features of Nature.

The two main characteristics of this writer's mind are, we think, sympathy with the sterner passions, and scorn for the lighter foibles and frailties of man. From the first have sprung those energetic, though somewhat overcharged, pictures, which startle and appal us in Adam Blair and Matthew Wald. To the latter we owe the sparkling humour, the bitter satire, and the brilliant badinage of Peter's Letters, Reginald Dalton, and all his splendid sins in the pages of Blackwood. Besides those master features, he possesses, beyond all question, a strong and sagacious intellect, a clear and discriminating vein of criticism, a vigorous rather than a copious imagination, thorough rather than profound learning, and a style, destitute, indeed, of grace or elegance, but native, nervous, and powerful. He has, withal, no great subtlety of view, or width of comprehension, or generosity of feeling, and not a particle of that childlike simplicity, earnestness, and abandonment, which are so often the accompaniments of genius. Indeed, if genius be, as we deem it is, a voice from the depths of the human spirit; the utterance, native and irresistible, of one possessed by an influence which, like the wind, bloweth where it listeth; comes, he knows not whence; and goes, he knows not whither — a fainter degree of that inspiration which, to the rapt eye of the ancient prophet, made the future present, and the distant near — a lingering echo of that infinite ocean from which we have all come — the bright limit between the highest form of the intellectual, and the lowest form of the divine — if the man under its influence be a "maker," working out, in imitation of the great demiurgic artist, certain imitations of his own; a "declarer," more or less distinctly, of the awful will of the unseen Lawgiver, seated within his soul — a string to an invisible harper — a pen guided by a superhuman hand — a trumpet filled with a voice which is as the sound of many waters: — if this definition of genius be admitted, we question if he possesses it at all; if it be not, in truth, only high talent which sharpens his keen nostril, while genius flames and, fluctuates around the eagle eye, and the meteoric hair adorning the head of his friend and craft-brother, Professor Wilson

As a novelist, his first production was Valerius, which he read, Willis tells us, sheet after sheet, as it was written, to Christopher North, and was encouraged, by his approbation, to put it to press. It is a stern and literal re-production of the classical periods. Its style has, in general, the coldness and chasteness of a translation from the Latin. Its best passage is that descriptive of the amphitheatre, which is written with a rugged power worthy of the scene, in which the

Buzz of eager nations ran
In murmur'd pity, or loud-roar'd applause,
As man was slaughter'd by his fellow-man.
And wherefore slaughter'd? Wherefore, but because
Such were the bloody circus' genial laws,
And the imperial pleasure.

And yet we question if one line of Childe Harold, or one stanza of the Prophecy of Capys, do not more to reflesh the Titanic skeleton of ancient Rome to the imagination and heart, than the entire novels of Valerius and Salathiel.

In Adam Blair, he strikes upon a deeper and darker chord. It is a tale of guilt, misery, and repentance. Adam Blair, the happy father, husband, and minister, becomes, in the providence of God, a prostrate widower; and afterwards, in a sudden gust of infatuated passion, a miserable sinner. He repents in sackcloth and ashes — receives, in himself, that reward of his error which was meet — retires into private life — and dies, a humbled but happy man. Over the whole tale, as Mrs. Johnstone beautifully says, — there lies the "shadow of the hour and power of darkness." We will not soon forget that figure of the new made widower, tossing, amid the twilight trees, while, in moments of time, "ages of agony are passing over his bruised spirit." But with deeper interest imagination follows Adam Blair rushing from the scene of his guilt, into the heart of the Highland wilderness where the dark eye of a tarn stares up at him, like an exaggeration of his own guilty conscience; and where he curdles, into one gloomy rehearsal, all the after experiences of humiliation, and madness, and misery, which are before him. Suddenly the scene changes — a milder but solemn light falls upon the picture, as, a sadder and wiser man, the culprit enters the assembly of his brethren, and himself declares the fact and circumstances of his fearful fall. It is a scene for a great moral painter. The assembly met in full conclave — a crown of glory rising here and there on a hoary patriarchal head — the entrance, like that of a stray spirit, of the bewildered man, — the solemn faces, "darkening like water in the breeze," as his appearance outruns his words, in telling the dismal tale — might well inspire the truest and finest of pencils.

The moral of this story has been objected to; but we think without sufficient grounds. What is the real moral of any tale? Is it not its permanent impression — the last burning trace it leaves upon the soul? And who ever read, Adam Blair without rising from the perusal saddened — solemnized — smit with a profound horror at the sin which had wrought such hasty havock in a character so pure, and a nature so noble? This effect produced, surely the tale has not been told in vain.

Matthew Wald, is a series of brief and tragic sketches, ending in melo-dramatic madness and horror. Matthew is a soured disappointed man. His wife, Joan, answers to that best description of a good wife, — a leaning-prop to her husband. Katherine Wald, his early but lost love, comes and goes, like a splendid apparition. A sadder shadow, — poor Perling Joan, — passes to perish below the chariot wheels of her proud seducer. Her tale is told with exquisite beauty and pathos. But by far the most powerful thing in the book is the murder in Glasgow. Matthew Wald goes to reside with an old and, seemingly, pious couple, John Macewan, a shoemaker, and his wife. They are very industrious, but very poor. One market-day John brings in a drover with him to his inner apartment, and, after a short crack, goes out again, telling his wife and lodger, who are in the kitchen, that the drover is drunk — has gone to bed, and must not be disturbed for a while. In a little, Matthew notices a dark something creeping toward him, from the door of the room. It is a stream of blood. He bursts open the door and finds the drover robbed and murdered. Meanwhile John pursues his way westward — comes, at evening, to a cottage on a lonely moor — enters to ask a drink of water — discovers a woman dying — kneels down by her bedside and prays a "long, a powerful, an awful, a terrible prayer" — rises and pursues his way. He is arrested in Arran — tried and condemned — protesting that it was a "sair temptation of the evil one." He is brought to the scaffold — the people hoot, and cast dead cats in his face — he says only, "Poor things, they kenna what they do." Wald, the moment ere he is turned off, feels the old murderer's pulse; its beat is as calm, even, and iron as his own. The whole story is recounted with a sort of medical coolness which renders it appalling.

We forget the exact date of Reginald Dalton; but, from internal evidence, we might almost conclude that was written during, or shortly after, the author's honeymoon, amid the groves of Chiefswood, and with the murmurs of the Tweed and the voice of the gentle Sophia Scott mingling in his ear. Valerius was the flower of his early scholarship; Adam Blair and Matthew Wald seem to have been both conceived, if not both written, in that dark passage through which often the youth of high intellect enters into manhood. But Reginald Dalton, gay, lively, varied, only slenderly shadowed with the hues of sorrow, is the work of a matured and married man, whose aims in life are taken, and whose prospects in it are fair. It is one of the most agreeable of tales. With no passages in it so powerful as some in Adam Blair, and Matthew Wald, — framed of a less unique and indivisible structure than Valerius, which reads like one letter found in Pompeii, it is much more bustling, and animated, and readable than any of the three. The scene is chiefly, and the interest entirely, in Oxford. The step of the author becomes inspired so soon as it touches the streets of the old city. And, while deeply reverent of his Alma Mater, he is not afraid to dash a strong and fearless light upon her errors of discipline and abuses of practice. The incidents of the tale, however, are rather improbable and involved. Its love scenes are tedious, — its pathos feeble, — its characters, with the signal exception of the Edinburgh writer, neither striking nor new. The merit lies entirely in the truth and vigour of the description — in the lively manner in which the tale is told, and in the incessant stream of clever and sparkling things which run down throughout the whole.

Peter's Letters excited a prodigious sensation at the time of its appearance. It was so personal — so quizzical — so impudent, and so desperately clever. Its illustrations were so good, and so grotesque withal. And then there was the slightest possible shade of mystification about the fact of the authorship, to give a last tart tinge to the interest. It, accordingly, ran like wild-fire. Steamers and track-boats were not considered complete without a copy. It supplanted guide-books in inns. A hundred country towns, aware that a "chield was taking notes" among them, were on the daily look-out for the redoubtable Peter, with his spectacles — his Welch accent — his Toryism — his inordinate thirst for draught porter, and his everlasting shandry-dan. Playfair, Leslie, &c., writhed under its personalities, but much more under its pictures. It became so popular, in Leicester, that Robert Hall actually attacked it from the pulpit. After all, it is one of the most harmless and amusing of brochures. We like even its broad unblushing and unwinking bigotry, — the hearty openness with which he brandishes his knife and fork, — the force of its more elaborate sketches, such as those of John Clerk, and Dr. Chalmers, — his famous funny pictures of the Burns dinner, — the day at Craigerook; and, above all, the Monday dinner, of thirty years ago, given to, and a little beyond, the life; and, better still, the faces and heads seen as if through a microscope, which lent their left-handed illustration to the whole. Those of Jeffrey, Hogg, and Chalmers, alias the "Wee reekit deil of criticism," the "inspired sheepshead," and the "eloquent gravedigger," were particularly felicitous.

In the year 1826, Lockhart left the bar, where he had paid unsuccessful homage to Themis, for the editorship of The Quarterly Review. On the occasion of leaving Edinburgh for London, a dinner was given him, where he happily enough excused himself from making a long speech, on the plea, that if he could have made such a speech, no such occasion had ever occurred. Great expectations were formed about his management of that powerful periodical. Gifford had only a little before dropped his bloody ferula in death; and it became an eager question with the literary world, whether Lockhart would introduce a milder regime, or only exchange whips for scorpions. Not a few expected the latter to be the more probable consequence.

We remember a periodical writer at the time raising a warning cry to the Cockneys, whose enemy was — now coming up among them. Lockhart, however, knew better than to take up all the quarrels, and perpetuate all the feuds of his predecessor. The times, too, had changed, and, with the times the tastes. The objects, moreover, of assault were now hors de combat. Shelley was dead; Hunt was bankrupt and broken-hearted; Hazlitt was desperate and at bay — and a rumour ran that his horns were tipped with poison; the minor writers of the school had perished under the crush of their ponderous enemy; Lamb's gentle luminary had slowly risen into "a star among the stars of mortal night;" and it was not now safe to howl at Hesperus. Besides, Lockhart was a man of another spirit from his forerunner; and it must be admitted, that though he has several times sinned, and sinned deeply, yet that, on the whole, his management of The Quarterly has been manly and open, as well as able and energetic. If he has not, on the one hand, been a pervading spirit, giving life and unity to the entire journal, neither has he been a mere string of red tape, tying the articles together; and far less an omnipresent poison, collecting here and there into a centre its deadlier virus, and tingling the whole with its dilution of death.

As a biographer, he has written lives of Burns, of Napoleon, and of his great father-in-law. His biography of Burns, is rather a thick and strongly-chiselled inscription upon his tombstone, than a minute, careful, and complete estimate of his character and genius; or call it rather rude, but true bust, of the poet, and, like all busts, it contains the intellect, but omits the heart. It possesses, however, one or two noble passages, and altogether forms a fit introduction to Allan Cunningham's loving and lingering biography, and to the splendid marginal commentaries of Carlyle and Wilson.

His Life of Napoleon (in The Family Library) is also no more than a sketch, though a vigorous, faithful, and "con amore" contribution, to the preparations for a yet unwritten life of the Corsican prodigy. Lockhart, as well as Croly, and all the abler conservative writers, does full justice to the genius of Napoleon. Like Madame de Stael, he is ready to exclaim, "It will never do to tell us that all Europe was for years at the mercy of a coward and a fool." He thinks it intensely ridiculous for writers to try to show, by lengthy argumentation, how absurd it was for a man to have gained the battles which, by all the rules of war, he ought to have lost; what a pity it was that the Archduke Charles and Blucher had not learned the all-important lesson, "never to know when they were beaten;" and that, on the whole, Napoleon was the stupidest man in Europe, and his career little else than one glorious blunder! This, with minds like Lockhart's and Croly's, verily, "will never do." If Napoleon were a blockhead, what a "thrice double ass" was that vast mooncalf of a world, which, from California to Japan, either trembled at or adored him!

In writing the Life of Scott, the Napoleon of the novelists, Lockhart undertook a far more difficult and delicate task. And without pretending that he has solved altogether the problem of the mighty wizard's life, and without entering at all into the moot points and fretting details of the execution, we feel thankful for the work, on the whole, as furnishing a variety of interesting and select facts. The philosophy of the life it was not his part, else it was fully in his power, to have contributed. And if the panegyric be now and then too unsparing, and the style here and there be a little careless, and the tone be sometimes too snappish and overbearing; and if he seem, once or twice, to lean back too ostentatiously upon the merits of his subject, and the advantages of his position; and if his general estimate of his hero be rather that of the son-in-law than of the critic, let us, remembering the difficulties of the undertaking, forgive its defects.

It were unpardonable to omit notice of his Spanish Ballads; some of which the hero of that romantic land might sing, as he was rushing into the midst of the fray; while others might be chanted by the labourer going forth to his toil, mingling on his lips with the "Ancient lad of Roncesvalles," and others by the village beauty, mourning the loss of her "ear-rings," which have dropt into the envious way-side well. They are, to use a fine distinction, not translations but transfusions of the soul and spirit of the original Spanish.

After all, why are the powers which have done all this not doing more? Why do we recognise his "fine Roman hand" so seldom even in his own review? Above all, why have we no more Adam Blairs? Reginald Daltons? and Spanish, or other Ballads? Why must we close this short sketch by the complaint

"Why slumbers Lockhart?" once was ask'd in vain;
"Why slumbers Lockhart?" — now is ask'd again?