Before My Bookcase
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The two first articles were collected in Through the Magic Door in 1907.
Before My Bookcase - I
- in Great Thoughts (5 may 1894 [UK])
- in The Sun, New York (20 may 1894 [US])
- in The Philadelphia Inquirer (20 may 1894 [US])
- in The Indianapolis News (26 may 1894 [US]) as Before His Book-Case
- in Scottish Border Record (Galashiels) (4 january 1906 [UK])
- in Through the Magic Door (1907)
Before My Bookcase - II
- in Great Thoughts (19 may 1894 [UK])
- in The Indianapolis News (2 june 1894 [US]) as Some Much-Read Books, 3 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in The Philadelphia Inquirer (3 june 1894 [US]) 4 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in Scottish Border Record (Galashiels) (18 january 1906 [UK])
- in Through the Magic Door (1907)
Before My Bookcase - III
- in Great Thoughts (2 june 1894 [UK])
- in The Indianapolis News (16 june 1894 [US]) as A Talk about Books, 2 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in The Philadelphia Inquirer (17 june 1894 [US]) 3 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in Scottish Border Record (Galashiels) (25 january 1906 [UK])
Before My Bookcase - IV
- in Great Thoughts (16 june 1894 [UK])
- in The Indianapolis News (7 july 1894 [US]) as The Historical Romance, 3 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in The Philadelphia Inquirer (8 july 1894 [US]) 3 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in Scottish Border Record (Galashiels) (1 february 1906 [UK])
Before My Bookcase - V
- in Great Thoughts (23 june 1894 [UK])
- in The Indianapolis News (14 july 1894 [US]) as Before His Book-Cases, 3 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in The Philadelphia Inquirer (15 july 1894 [US]) 3 ill. by F. C. Drake
- in Scottish Border Record (Galashiels) (8 february 1906 [UK])
- in Hawick Express and Scottish Border News (9 february 1906 [UK])
Before My Bookcase - VI
- in Great Thoughts (30 june 1894 [UK])
- in Scottish Border Record (Galashiels) (15 february 1906 [UK])
Before My Bookcase
The following texts are taken from The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Before My Bookcase (1/6)
THE OLIVE-GREEN SCOTT, THE OLD-FASHIONED BOSWELL, THE EIGHT-VOLUME GIBBON.
There would surely be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Of those that I am looking at upon my favorite shelf nearly all have been written by dead bands. Each is a mummified soul, embalmed in morocco leather and printer's ink. Every cover contains the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have in many eases faded into the thinest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, and yet here are their very spirits within my bookcase. A line of such volumes may well make a man subdued and reverent.
And surely also this same familiarity has lessened our sense of the privilege which we enjoy. Suppose that we were suddenly to learn that Goethe was still to be seen within the four mile radius and that he would favor any of us with an hour a his conversation, how eagerly would we rush to him and how keen would be our appreciation of the favor! And yet we have him — the very best of him — at nue elbows from the Monday to the Sunday, and hardly trouble to put our hands out to take him down. No matter what mood a man may be in while he sits before his bookcase he can still summon out the world's greatest to sympathize with him in it. If he be thoughtful, here are the philosophers; if he be dreamy, the poets are waiting to sing to him. Or is it that he needs amusement ou the long winter evenings? he has but to light his reading lamp, and make his choice among the great storytellers, and out comes the dead man and keeps him thought-bound by the hour. The dead are such good company that one may come to think too little of the living.
HIS OLD FRIENDS.
But to come back to the particular line of books — the second from the top — which contains my own favorites. I hardly dare talk of them for fear I should grow too garrulous. To me they are vital things. my oldest friends, may-stanchest comforters. They are the props upon which my own young 'thoughts first learned to grow. And so girt round with memories are some of them that I cannot bring out one of them without a dozen others trailing in a tangle behind it. It is a pleasure to me to chat of them. but I have no assurance that it wilt be so to those who listen.
You see, the 20 old olive-green vol. times which fill up the right. That is the edition of Scott. which I have had all my life. My first keen sense of injustice was, I remember, connected with their acquirement. My money-box had become so full that there was hardly room to insert the blade of a tableknife, with which I used occasionally to burgle my own hank. Vistas of all kinds of possibilities rose before me. There was a clockwork man upon whom I had long bent covetous eyes. and I knew where a Noah's ark was to be had. which contained not only the animals. but the insects as well. Conceive my feelings. thee. when one morning I found the breakfast table lined with those volumes. and was informed that my precious hoard had been wasted upon them! Books! And books without pictures, too! I had not even a cricket bat. and here I was squandering money on literature. The very name of Scott became an offense to me. and I placed him somewhere between Gregory's powder and English grammar on the list of my antipathies.
However, time vindicated the parental wisdom. My library was always a small ones and so I wits thrown again and again upon my olive-hacked novels. Wet weather and country houses slaked them into me. I read them on the tops of trees, I read them in a cave, which, by some hereditary troglodytic instinct, I had hollowed for myself in the garden; and often, too, by surreptitious candle-ends, I read them in the night, when the sense of crime gave an added charm to the story. You observe that my "Ivanhoe" is of a different edition to the others. The first copy was left by some mischance in the grass by the burnside and fell into the water. and was eventually found three days later. horribly bloated, upon n mud blink. Yet I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had worn it out before I lost it. Indeed, it was perhaps as well that it wits some years before I replayed it. for my instinct always was to read it again instead of breaking fresh ground.
What a book it is, too! The second greatest historical novel in our language, I think. Every successive reading has deepened my admiration for it. Scott's soldiers are always as admirable as his young women are unendurable, but here the soldiers are at their very best. while the romantic figure of Rebecca redeems the female side of the story from the usual common placeness. Scott drew manly men because he was a manly man himself, and found the task a sympathetic one. He, drew. young heroines because a convention demanded it — a convention which he never had the hardihood to break. It is only when we get hint for a dozen chapters on end without a petticoat — in the long stretch, for example, from the beginning of the tournament to the end of the Black Knight, and Friar Tuck incident — that we realize the height of continued romantic narrative to which he could attain. To my mind we have not in our whole literature a finer sustained flight than that.
WHERE SCOTT WAS PERFECT.
Scott's art reached its perfection, I think, when he had to treat a soldier. There is no posing, nothing theatrical, no heroics. but just the short, bluff word ant the simple, manly thought, with every trick of speech Sad of habit in absolute harmony. What a pity it is that he, with his unequaled power of soldier-drawing, should never have realized that he was actually living in the age which produced perhaps the finest soldiers that the world has ever seen. What would we not give for a portrait of a grenadier of the Old Guard, of a retired Peninsular veteran, or of a dashing Lasalle or Murat, drawn with the same bold stroke's as was Lord Crawford with his archer guard.
In his visit to Paris he must have seen ninny of those peaky, undersized men, ill-nourished and ill-clad, who had forced their way into nearly every capital of Europe, and whose defeat had at last been accomplished less by arms than by the thermometer. To us now these men who scowled at him from the sidewalks of Paris in 1814 would be more interesting than either crusaders or Moslem. But then no man ever does realize the features of the age in which he lives. Why else should the old masters have gone on drawing Saint Sebastians and inn parlors when Columbus was discovering America before their very faces?
But, indeed, the very wisest mortals seem to go strangely astray when they try to form any estimate of the events which are going on around them. They need perspective to gain a sense of proportion. Fancy Scott. the noble-minded gentleman, treasuring as a relic the glass out of which the unutterable George had drunk. Fancy, too, that all his historical learning and his wisdom taught him only that the Reform bill was a thing to be opposed. Such examples make one think that after all the historical novel may be a more accurate picture of the times than the contemporary novel can be.
If, for example, a man were to conscientiously study the England of Edward the Third. he can say for certain what the vital movements of that time were. The decline of knight-errantry, the rise of the archer, the freeing of the villains, the discontent of the people, the beginning of literature — we can see it all mapped out and we can reproduce it with some accuracy. But which of us can say which of the movements going on around us are vital, and which are incidental and temporary? Trade unionism. total prohibition, land nationalization, socialism the woman question, cooperation — we cannot say which of these are evanescent and which are permanent.
You can get away from Scott's novels, but you cannot get away from Scott, for you see that the very next book upon my shelf is "Lockhart's Life." It is singular that the two best biographies in our language should have for their subjects two men who had so much in common as Scott and Johnson. With their wide reading, their robust conviviality, their solidity of character and their high Tory opinions the two men have a close affinity. And yet there is just the difference between a dictionary and a novel between them. All the erudition upon earth cannot make up for that gift of soul-projection which we call imagination, and for the wide sympathy with life which it implies.
And the lesson of Scott's life seems to me to be the finer. I know no mere heroic figure in history than that of the old main bereaved, in ill health, ruined, yet Meeting the sudden reverse of fortune with a brave front, refusing to submit to the degradation of bankruptcy, and writing off a hundred thousand pounds' worth of debts for which he was legally, though not morally, responsible. No doubt, he hastened his end, but then is it not worth while to hasten one's end if one can stimulate others by such an example?
The strangest trait in Scott's complex and noble character was the singular secretiveness which he showed in the most important actions of his life. His own wife did not know for many years that he was the author of the "Waverly Novels." and certainly none of his family had an idea that he was a member of a large publishing firm until the crash came which ruined them. Thus the cause of all his success and that of all his trouble were equally locked up in his own mind. A psychologist might perhaps trace the working of this phase of Scott's nature in the will-o'-the-wispish, Fenella-like characters, who keep their irritating secret through so many of his books, and who exasperate more than they interest.
I see that in talking about the Boswell and the Lockhart's Scott, which stand side by side on my shelf I described them as the two greatest biographies in our language. But, after all, I am not sure that that green-bound book below them will not stand on as high a level ii the eyes of our posterity. It is, as you see, Fronde's "Carlyle," and surely there have been few more honest and more sterling pieces of work. Apart from the literary craft, which is of the highest, he has had the moral courage to approach the subject in the right way. Who could bear to see the rough, rugged-tongued old Prophet touched up and apotheosized with a halo substituted for his slouch-hat? It would have been an outrage to do it. And yet it took great courage not to do it, for the conventional idea of a biography is that it should be an enlarged epitaph.
Froude has drawn a faithful picture, as his subject would certainly have had him do, with shadow and light as they exist in all of Mt. But how small those shadows are and what a preposterous fuss has been made about them? That he did not like his work to be interrupted. That the crowing of cocks annoyed him. That his nerves. after writing what was a latish outflow of pure nerve-force. were lees phlegmatic than those — of his Mime-mason father. That his wife; at highly neurotic woman. had occasional tiffs with him. Read the letters which he wrote her when they were he gray-headed, and say whet her a woman might not Orally put up with much to be addressed in such a way by such a man.
But I have wandered off to the wrong. shelf. I had just passel Lockhart, I think, and bad got as far as my five-volumed, old-fashioned Boswell. I feel all the charm of the book, but to Boswell be the credit and not to Johnson. If the former had not lived, how much would any one know or care for the latter? With Scotch persistence he has inoculated the whole world with his hero-worship. But apart from the glamour which the book has cast round him surely Johnson's figure bulks far too large in our literature.
THE REAL CHARM OF JOHNSON.
What did he accomplish after all? The dictionary was a colossal piece of hackwork and the "Lives of the Poets" so many compilations. Who can profess honest admiration for "Rasselas" now or find more than a few vigorous lines in "London?" What really charms us is neither the writing nor the talk, but Boswell's picture of the big, uncouth man with his grunts and his groans, his Garagantuan appetite, his twenty cups of tea and his tricks with the orange peel and the lamp-posts. We get that personal detail — the very detail for which future generations will thank Froude — and so we come to think that we are exalting a writer, when we are really only interested in a human being.
Now pass the eight volumes which stand next on my shelf, and you come to a man who was one of Johnson's own circle at times. and who would, I think, have better deserved the adulation of those amulet him. It is Gibbon's "Decline and Fall." There are times when, as I think of the huge scope of the book, how it covers a thousand years of the earth's history, how full and good and accurate it is, how broad is the philosophic standpoint, how dignified the style, I place it at the very apex of our literature. Critics blame Gibbon for being pompous, but great credit is really due to him for not being more so at a time when Johnson's turgid style had so largely corrupted our literature.
For myself I like Gibbon's pomposity. There is a harmony between his style and Subject. A paragraph should be measured and sonorous if it ventures to describe the advance of a Roman legion or the debates of a Greek Emperor. And how dramatic is all that period of history when nations came whirling in like dust-storms, and when out of all the seeming chaos every race was blended with its neighbor so as to toughen the fibre of the whole and lay the foundations for stable nationalities! The fickle Gaul got his steadying from the Franks, the steady Saxon got his touch of refinement from the Norman, the effete Italian got a fresh lease of life from the Lombard and the Ostrogoth, the corrupt Greek made way for the manly and earnest Mahommedan. Every where one seems to see a great hand blending the seeds.
And so one can now, save only that emigration has taken the place of war. It does not, for example, take much prophetic power to say that something very great is being built up on the other side of the Atlantic. When on an Anglo-Celtic basis you see the Italian, the Hun and the Scandinavian being added you feel that there is no human quality which may not be evolved.
A SOLID FRIEND.
It is characteristic of the book, however that it should make one wander, for it is so full of food for thought — so vital in all with which it deals — that it suggests even more than it says. If I were to spend the remainder of my life upon an island, and were condemned to choose only one book as my companion, it would certainly be Gibbon, Mr. Boffin's taste was, I think, eminently sound. When all is so interesting it is hard to pick examples, but to me there has always seemed to be something peculiarly impressive in the first entrance of a new race on to the stage of history. It has something of the glamour which hangs round the early youth of a great man. You remember how the Russians made their debut — came down the great rivers and appeared at the Bosphorus in 200 canoes, from which they endeavored to board the imperial galleys.
Singular that 1000 years have passed and that the Russian ambition is still to carry out the tasks at which their skin-clad ancestors failed! Or the Turks again; you may recall the characteristic ferocity with which they opened their career. A handful of them were on some mission to the Emperor. The town was besieged from the landward side by the barbarians, and the Asiatics obtained leave to take part in a skirmish. The first Turk galloped out, shot a barbarian with his arrow, and then lying down beside him, proceeded to suck his blood, which so horrified the man's comrades that they could not be brought to face such uncanny adversaries. So, from opposite sides, those two great races arrived at the city which was to be the stronghold of the one, and the ambition of the other for so many centuries.
THE ADVENT OF THE VANDALS.
And then even more interesting than the races which arrive are those that disappear. There is something there which appeals most powerfully to the imagination. Take for example the fate of those Vandals who conquered the North of Africa. They were a German tribe, blue-eyed and flaxen-haired, from somewhere in the Elbe country. Suddenly they too were seized with the strange wandering madness which was epidemic at the time. Away they went on the line of least resistance,which is always from north to south and from east to west. Southwest was the course of the Vandals — a course which must have been continued through pure love of adventure, since in the thousands of miles which they traversed there were many fair resting place's, if that duly were their quest. They crossed the South of France, conquered Spain. and finally the more adventurous passed over into Africa, where they occupied the old Roman province. For two or three generations they held it, much as the English hold India, and their numbers were at the least some hundreds of thousands. Presently the Roman Empire gave one of those flickers which showed that there was still some fire among the ashes. Belisarius landed in Africa and reconquered the province. The Vandals were cut off from the sea and tied inland. Whither did they carry those blue eyes and yellow hair? Were they exterminated by the negroes, or did they amalgamate with them? Travelers have brought back stories from the Mountains of the Moon of a Negroid race, with light eyes and hair. Is it possible that here we have some trace of the vanished Germans?
It recalls the parellel case of the lost settlements in Greenland. That also has always seemed to me to be one of the most romantic questions in history — the more go, perhaps, as I have strained my eyes to see across the ice-floes of the Greenland coast at the point (or near it) where the old "Eyrbyggia" must have stood. That was the Scandinavian city, founded by colonists from Iceland, which grew to he a considerable place, So much so that they sent to Denmark for a bishop. That would be in the fourteenth century. The bishop coming out to his see found that he was unable to reach it on account of a climatic change which had brought down the ice and tilled up the strait between Iceland and Greenland. From that day to this no one has been able to say what has become of these old Scandinavians, who were At the time, lie it remembered, the most civilized and advanced race in Europe. They may have been overwhelmed by the Esquimaux, the despised Skroeling — or they may here amalgamated with them — or conceivably they might have held their own. Very little is known as yet of that portion of the coast It would be strange if some Nansen or Peary were to stumble upon the remains of the old colony. and be hailed by them as their long-expected bishop.
But that is enough- about Gibbon. I never read him until I was five and twenty. and So, much as I admire' him, he does not appeal to me like one or two of those old books to the left which, as you see, have been worn until they rather spoil my shelf. And yet it would, I feel, be a desecration to change those dirty, brown covers which seem so kindly and familiar to my eyes.
Before My Bookcase (2/6)
The Tattered Macaulay, Stevenson's Poems, the Kipling Ballads.
Now, if I had to name the one book from which I have had most pleasure and also most profit in my reading it would be that tattered copy of Macaulay's Essays. Worn as it is, it is an "Edition de luxe" compared with its predecessor, now long dog-eared and thumbnailed into oblivion. This one has been with me on the sweltering gold-coast, and formed part of my scanty kit 'when I went a-whaling in the Arctic. Honest Scotch harpooners have addled their brains over it. and you may still see the grease stains which show where the second engineer grappled with Frederick the Great.
What a splendid doorway it is through which a youngster may approach-either history or literature! The short vivid sentences, the huge range of knowledge. the exactness of the detail. they all throw a glamor round the subject. and make the most superficial of readers long to know more about it. If Macaulay's hand cannot lead a man on to these pleasant paths. then he may despair of ever finding them. To me in my schoolboy days the book opened up a new world. What had been a task and a drudgery became in an instant an incursion into an enchanted land.
EVEN HIS FAULTS ARE GOOD.
I loved even the faults — indeed, now that I cone to think of it, it was the faults which I loved best. No style could be too florid for me in those days, and no antithesis too flowery. It pleased me to read that "a universal shout of laughter from the Vistula to the Tagus informed the Pope that the days of the Crusades were past," and I was delighted to learn that "Lady Jerningham kept a vase in which people placed foolish verses and Mr. — wrote verses which were fit to he placed in Lady Jeringham's verse." My bookcase, alas! is eight hundred good miles away, and I am before it only in spirit, which is an inconvenient way of verifying quotations, but when one tries to chat about literature on the top of the Alps one must do what one can.
Those were the sort of sentences which used to fill me with a vague and yet enduring pleasure. A man learns to like a plainer literary diet as he grows older, but still as I look over the essays I am filled with admiration and wonder at the alternate power of handling a great big subject, and of adorning it by delightful detail — first a bold sweep of the brush, and then the most delicate stippling. And the wonderful power of allusion, too, which shows tile reader so many side vistas in every direction. An admirable if somewhat old-fashioned literary and historical education might be effected by working through every book which is alluded to in the essays.
I can remember that when I visited London at the age of in, the first thing I did was to make a pilgrimage to Macaulay's grave. It was the one great object of interest which London held for me. And so it well might be when I think of all he did for me. It is not merely the knowledge and the stimulation of fresh interests, but it is the charming, gentlemanly tone, the broad liberal outlook, the absence of bigotry and of prejudice. When I burgle my son's money box as my own was burgled 30 years ago it will be to set him up with a complete Macaulay.
Of course they say that he is inaccurate. They say so of Froude, also; and of everyone else who tries to turn history into something more human than an almanac. There is a school of critics in England whose fixed idea is that work which has any depth must be dry, and that interest is always a sign of superficiality. The principle is had enough and false enough when applied to science or to history, but it reaches its most grotesque form when applied to fiction, where interest is the primary object.
You get a stodgy. heavy novel, ill-mixed and ill-baked, difficult reading from cover to cover, like any one of — well, never mind whom — and it, will hold its own for 30 or 40 years as a classic, while a great Charles Reade, with his passion and his incident, will be dismissed as "mere melodrama" or "sensational and had art." We have to so much of art in fiction that we are in imminent danger of forgetting the object for which the art was ever devised.
THE GOOD SURVIVES.
But after all the right thing, always survives. Literature finds is own level as surely as water does.i,If every critic on earth were to unite to praise a bad book or to damn a good one it would not have the slightest effect upon the ultimate fate of either. The public is often misled for a time, but never for all time. Some honored names are on tire wane and some are on the rise. Reade, for one, and his single-book relative. Winwood Reade, for another, have not yet reached their true places in our literature.
But I have been lured away from my old volume of Essays. There is but one which I would subtract from it. It is the murderous attack upon poor Montgomery. No doubt it represented a style of criticism in vogue, but Macaulay should have had head and heart enough to make him rise superior to such literary brutalities. Like all such work, it took more from the good name of the writer than of the subject. A stupid book may be left to sink from its own weight. After all, it represents a folly and not a crime. To scathe and worry and harrow the writer is to exaggerate his offense. But when that writer is a man whose nerves have been tried by a long task, or a woman who has placed her hopes upon her work, then a police Court and a treadmill seem to be the only adequate rewards of the ferociously sarcastic critic.
THE LAYS OF ANCIENT ROME.
Certainly. Macaulay's want of charity in this instance lessens one's sympathy for him in the cases in which he is himself the victim of unjust or ill-natured criticism. There is, for example, the famous and fatuous remark of Brougham. And there is Matthew Arnold's onslaught upon the glorious Lays. I confess that my own confidence in Arnold's criticism received a great shake when I read his opinion upon that point, and I felt that a man who has once shown such a want of sympathy and insight discounts to some extent all his other opinions. The verse which he fell foul of was:
- And how can man die better
- Than facing fearful odds
- For the ashes of his fathers
- And the temples of his gods?
"Is this poetry?" cries Arnold, and makes it the text for a depreciation of the Lays. Evidently the baldness of the idea and of the language had displeased him. But this is exactly where the merit lies. Macaulay is quoting the rough, blunt words with which a simple-minded soldier appeals to two comrades to help him in a deed of valor. Any high-flown sentiment would have been absolutely out of character. The lines are, I think, taken with their context, admirable ballad poetry and I believe no one but Scott or Macaulay could have written them.
There is one other man, however, who writes ballad poetry so well that it is not to be bettered. I mean Stevenson, whose thin little volume of poems stands upon the next shelf. I only wish he would do it oftener; for it is the form of literary expression to which his genius peculiarly lends itself. Those quaint turns of speech and archaic phrases which occasionally put the - slightest possible stiffness into his prose, though they also continually produce effects which are in no other way attainable, are always charming in a ballad. To me personally the "Ancient Mariner" is the finest narrative ballad in our literature, and Stevenson's "Ticonderoga" is the second. He can touch that weird, vague note which haunts the imagination.
- I have slain a man to my hurt.
- I have spilled his soul in the air.
You cannot forget that second line. And it is all so exquisitely finished throughout. Every line is beautifully polished. There are no weaklings.
Now, with Kipling, whose poems, as you see, I have placed alongside of Stevenson's, you cannot say this. His rush and fire and swing are just as good as they could be. His sense of metre is extraordinary. He is the Swinburne of the canteen. But his power of literary expression is a varying one. rising to the highest and filet dropping lower than one cares to see it drop. Take the "Ballad of East and West," for example — a ballad which would have set Scott dancing with delight all round the Abbotsford study. What could be more splendid than some of the lines? Look at the description of the young chieftain:
- He trod the ling like a buck in spring,
- And he looked like a lance in rest.
What a description of alertness and gallantry! But then we come suddenly on:
- And when he could spy the white of his eye,
- He made the pistol crack.
That last line really does get below zero! It is like coming on an acorn among the nuts.
But still for all the faults Kipling's "Barrack Room Ballads" will, I think, have an enduring place in our literature, and if there are drops I should be I the last to comment upon them, for there are few books from which I have had so much pleasure. They are only too catchy. It becomes epidemic. When "Mandelay" got into my household we all caught it, down to the children and the maids. It would be too much for me to say that I know the book by heart, but I might safely claim that if anyone quotes a line I can give the next. Who would ever have thought that such effects could be got out of cockney English and our commonplace Tommy. Look at the "Ford, ford', ford, of the Cabul River." What a dirge it is! Most threnodies, Lycidas, Adonais, and the rest of them, hit you only on the head, but this simple little thing, with hardly an "h" in it, goes straight for your heart, and, after all, that is what a threnody is meant for. But I dare not begin to pick my favorite bits of the "Barrack Room Ballads." Let me quote only one other line of Kipling:
- Heart of my heart, is this well done?
That is a good text for a man to have painted above his mantelpiece! It hangs above my own, and I fancy it steadies one, even if one has too often to answer in the negative.
Before My Bookcase (3/6)
A Great Book on America and Two American Historians — Henley's Admirable Poetry.
That large dark two-volume book is a very young one, but it has every prospect of reaching a bright old age. It is Bryce's "American Commonwealth." What a fine thorough hook it is, so complete and so systematic! I should think it hardly possible for a native of one country to give a better account of the institutions and peculiarities of another. And then he has treated his subject in a broad, kindly spirit, and not insisted, as so many of our travelers do, upon measuring everything upon earth with their little English yard-stick.
Literature might be made the very strongest cement for binding the English-speaking races together, but in the hands of Mrs. Trollope and Dickens and Kipling it has rather become the solvent to weaken the sympathy between America and ourselves. Nor can we fairly retort with a "tu quoque" for what fairer picture of our own life and country could be drawn than those by Emerson and Holmes and Hawthorne and Washington Irving? This book of Bryce's at least is one of which no Briton need he ashamed.
There should be a new offense added to the statute book, and the name of it should he "International Libel." I seriously think that in its extreme forms it should he a punishable offense. How absurd it seems that if I say a word derogatory of my neighbor Brown, he can summon all the might of the British law and have me punished for what I have said, although nothing of importance is at stake, and time whole matter merely personal between Brown and me. On the other hand. I could turn upon the United States of America, and I might say the most bitter and rancorous things, or I might write a book which would alienate our Australian colonies, without any law being able to control me.
If it is not an infringement of the liberty of the press that it is allowed to abuse individuals, then it would not be an infringement either if it should be forbidden to abuse collections of individuals. All efforts at building up kindly international feelings are of present liable to be neutralized by a few dyspeptic or hot-headed journalists, who speak as if they represented the nation, when they really only represent so many cross-grained individuals writing in back offices. I am convinced that as the world becomes more highly organized this irresponsible power will be curtailed.
The line of books upon the left are the works of Francis Parkman, a historian too little read in England. I believe that the recent news of his death was the first thing that many otherwise well-read people ever heard of him, and yet he was certainly one of the greatest historians of our epoch, and, as I think, the very first that America has produced. Prescott and Washington Irving have gone to Europe for their subjects, but Parkman first saw the mine of wealth which lay upon his own continent. And yet, though a Bostonian himself, his work as a rule only deals with New England in a secondary way. "Frontenac," "The Jesuits in Canada," "Wolfe and Montcalm" — the titles show how often he has crossed the border line for his subjects. It must be confessed that the drab, though estimable Puritanism offers less charm to the writer who wishes to put the saving dash of romance and the imagination into his work, than the variety and color of early Canadian life.
Parkman makes it all live again with a vividness which sweeps away time and the Atlantic, and puts you down right in the midst of that extraordinary society. The Jesuit, best abused and most heroic of mankind, carrying his honesty, his courage and his bigotry into those murderous woods. How they journeyed and toiled with an inevitable stake and scalping knife for a goal. Read about Father Joque for instance — how the Iroquois ripped him and smashed him until the village dogs used to slink away from him, frightened at his appearance. And yet when the King asked him what he could do for him to recompense him for what he had undergone, his answer was: "Sire, you can send me to the Iroquois mission." The favor was granted, and his flock finding it useless to attempt to shake that unconquerable soul, finished him off at the stake. And how clearly one is made to realize that long line of scattered settlements, and the ghastly, untiring, unspeakable enemy which crouched ever upon its flank.
I remember that when I once attempted in fiction to depict this state of society (drawing my inspiration mainly from Parkman), my friend. Mr. Zangwill, admonished me to remember "that mere horror was not art." Mr. Zangwill's opinion deserves all the respect which is due to a master worker, but I venture to prophesy that if he goes through a course of Parkman he will realize that the predominating note in old Canada was horror, the horror of sudden death with nameless accompaniments. I hate the word "art," but if in picturing a historical epoch it is right to reproduce the prevailing atmosphere, then in the case of French Canada one might claim that mere horror is art.
A FASCINATING BOOK OF IRVING'S.
There's another historical work there written by an American, which from my boyhood has held a peculiar fascination for me. I mean Washington Irving's "Conquest of Grenada." I know no book which reproduces the spirit of chivalry so well. Plumes flaunt and pennons flutter and lance-heads gleam in every chapter. And the whole character of the warfare between the Christian knights and the Moorish chevaliers was so romantic.
Ali Ben Mohammed, the dark-browed swordsman, rides out between the two armies, and a thrill of horror runs through the Christian ranks as they perceive that that which is trailing from the tail of his horse is an image of the virgin. Then out rides Don Diego, the sparkling Castilian champion, and the fun begins. And apart from individuals the war was fought in a country of mountain passes and of castles perched on inaccessible crags. Every campaign was a succession of bold forays, of sudden surprises, of ambuscades in dark passes when turbaned heads appeared suddenly on the fringe of precipices, and a shower of rocks with a howl of "Allah" warned the Spanish knights that their mettle was to be tried.
Not that they were always Spanish knights, for through all Christendom when a bold cavalier wanted a breather he served a term against the heathen. An English Lord Scales, for example, with a company of bowmen appeared very opportunely upon the scene and had excellent sport at a Moorish gate, upon which occasion the pious and valiant nobleman having had his front teeth dashed out by a stone remarked serenely that "The Lord had made a little window in him whereby he might the better observe the soul." As a rule it must he confessed that, as in the case of "Paradise Lost," one's sympathy is with the losing side. For one thing the knight was much more heavily armed than the Moor. His army had artillery and the others had not. And finally the suspicion of miraculous aid which hung about him "wasn't hardly fair," as Fuzzy-wuzzy remarked of the Martinis.
A WORD FOR "COUNT ROBERT OF PARIS."
Talking of infidel warfare brings me round to Scott again. I have heard critics refer in a disparaging way to "Count Robert of Paris," which was of course, almost his last novel, written when in the worst of health indeed hardly conscious of what was doing. Without including it in his very first flight. I think myself that Count Robert is so good that if Scott had written nothing else the book would still have given its author a place in literature. There are some scenes in it which he hardly ever surpassed. I think, for example. that the account which the Princess gives of the retreat of the Imperial army and of the holding of the pass by the Varangian Guard is one of the finest mixtures of tragedy and comedy that I know. These splendid soldiers of his! You remember how when the attack on the rear came, and the Emperor with the Invincibles hurried rapidly in the wrong direction, the Anglo-Saxon guard turned on the Turks with the cry of, "Bows and Bills." That has the true ring of business in it. And, again, the magnificent scene, founded of course upon historical fact, when the Franklin knight scatted himself upon the Emperor's throne. The story as a whole lacks coherence, but there is much in it of which Scott in his prime would not have been ashamed.
I'm afraid I lack coherence myself in these remarks, but yon must blame my books for it, for I take them in the order in which they stand. It is a long jump from the Moorish wars to the two little volumes of verse which stand next them on my shelf. They are a "Monk of Verse" and "The Song of the Sword," both of course by W. E. Henley. When I look at those two thin volumes and the little collection of "Reviews" beneath them I confess that I feel bitter to think that journalism should have made such a call upon one of the first writers of our day that this should after twenty working years represent his whole permanent output. At his best we have no modern poetry better than Henley's. It is a question whether we have any as good. I had rather have written those four magnificent verses which begin:
- Out of the night that covers me,
- Black as the pit from pole to pole,
- I thank whatever gods may be
- For my unconquerable soul,
than any lines that have been done in my time. Pagan sentiment, no doubt, but what a magnificent Pagan!
There really are in Henley two distinct styles which might be the work of two different men. The one is the extremely delicate descriptive work, distinguished by great compression and exactness, as in the hospital verses and in the London voluntaries. After spending years of my life in hospitals I can appreciate the subtle accuracy well as the beauty of literary expression in the former. The other style is large and loud and passionate, running to big thoughts and wild metaphors. Such is "The Song of the Sword," and many of the shorter poems. At its best this is splendid. At its worst it weakens itself by the riotous use of metaphor, and in the famous example of the tide and the moon. But it is the fault of Shakespeare. Henley, at his wildest never ventured upon such a phrase as "Shuffled off his mortal coil," which, if it is not blasphemy to say so, has always seemed to me to be one of the most unhappy conceits in our literature.
Before My Bookcase (4/6)
Chat About Familiar Volumes on an Author's Book Shelves.
Historical Romances and Romantic Histories — From Thackeray Back to Froissart.
I notice in glancing over my rambling remarks that I have classed Ivanhoe as the second historical novel of the century. I dare say there are many who would give "Esmond" the first place, and I can quite understand their position, although it is not my own. I recognize the beauty of the style, the consistency of the character drawing, the absolutely perfect Queen Anne atmosphere. There was never a historical novel written by a man who knew his period so thoroughly. But great as these virtues are, they are not the essential in a novel. The essential in a novel is interest. Now Esmond is, in my opinion, exceedingly interesting during the campaigns in the Lowlands, and when our Machiavelian hero, the Duke, comes in, and also whenever Lord Mohun shows his ill-omened face, but there are long stretches of the story which are heavy reading. A pre-eminently good novel must always advance and never mark time. Ivanhoe never halts for an instant, and that just makes its superiority as a novel over Esmond, though as a piece of literature, I think the latter is more perfect.
THE GREATEST HISTORICAL NOVEL.
No, if I had three votes I should plump them all for The Cloister and the Hearth" as being our greatest historical novel, and indeed as being our greatest novel of any sort. I think I may claim to have read most of the more famous foreign novels of the century and I speaking only for myself and within the limits of my reading) I have been more impressed with that book of Reade's and by Tolstoi's "Peace and War" than by any others. They seem by me to stand at the very top of the century's fiction. There is a certain resemblance in the two, the sense of space, the number of figures, the way in which the characters drop in and drop out. The Englishman is the more romantic. The Russian is the more real and ear-nest. But they are both great.
CHARLES READE'S GREATNESS.
Think of what Reade does in that one book! He takes the reader by the hand and he leads him away into the middle ages — and not a conventional study-built middle age, but a period quivering with life full of folk who are as human and real as a 'bus load in Oxford street. He takes him through Holland. he shows him the painters, the dykes. the life. He leads him down the long line of the Rhine. the spinal marrow. of Medieval Europe. He shows him the dawn of printing, the beginnings of freedom, the life of the great mercantile cities of South Germany, the state of Italy, the artist-life of Rome, the monastic institutions on the eve of the Reformation. And all this between the covers of one book, so naturally introduced, too. and told with such vividness and spirit. Apart from the huge scope of it the mere study of Gerard's own nature, his rise. his fall, his regeneration, the whole pitiable tragedy at the end, make the book a great one. It contains, I think, a blending of knowledge with imagination which makes it stand alone in our literature. Let anyone read the Autobiography of Benevenuto Cellini and then Reade's picture of Medieval Roman life if he wishes to appreciate the way in which Reade has collected his rough ore and has then smelted it all down in his fiery imagination. It is a good thing to have the industry to collect facts. It is a greater and a rarer one to have the tact to know how to use them when you have got them. To be exact without pedantry and thorough without being dull — above all to make the history always secondary to the story, that should be the ideal of the writer of historical romance.
Reade is one of the most perplexing figures in our literature. Never was there a man so hard to place. At his best he is the best we have. At his worst he is below the level of Surrey-side melodrama. But his best have weak pieces and his worst have good. There ,is always silk among his cotton and cotton among his silk. But for all his flaws the man who, in addition to the great book of which I have already spoken. wrote: "Never Too Late to Mend," "Hard Cash," "Foul Play," and "Griffith Gaunt," must always stand in the very first rank of our novelists.
Well, I have got a little out of order in speaking of Reade and so I will go back to my pet shelf and move onto the left starting from the two tiny books of Henley. The next you see is Froissart's Chronicles. I wonder whether that old Hainault Canon had any idea of what he was doing — whether it ever struck him that the day would come when his book would be the one great authority about not only the times in which he lived but the whole institution of chivalry. It is far more likely that his whole object was to gain some advantage from the various barons and princes whose names and deeds he recounts. He has left it on record how when he visited the court of England he took with him as a present a handsomely bound volume of his book — and doubtless if one could follow the good Canon one would find his journeys littered with similar copies which were probably expensive gifts to the recipient.
But whatever the motive the work could not have been done more thoroughly. There is something of Herodotus in the Canon's cheery, chatty, garrulous manner. But he had the advantage of the Greek in accuracy. Considering that he belonged to the same age which gravely accepted the traveler's tales of Sir John Mandeville, it is, I think. remarkable how careful and accurate the chronicler is. Take for ex. ample his description of Scotland and the Scotch — which is a subject over which a fourteenth century Hainaulter might be allowed some little scope for imagination — we can see now that his picture must on the whole have been very correct.
But most interesting of all to my mind is his picture of the knights and knight-errants. He lived himself just a little after the heydey of chivalry, but quite early enough to know many of the men who had been looked upon as the flower of knighthood of the time. His book was read, too, and commented upon by these very men (as many of them as could read), and so we may take it that the picture of these soldiers is a correct one. If you collate the remarks and speeches of the knights, too (as I have had occasion to do), you will find a remarkable uniformity running all through them. They are always consistent. We may take it, then, that this really does represent the sort of men who fought at Crecy and at Poictiers.
SCOTT'S CONTRASTED WITH FROISSART'S.
But if it does it differs in important respects from anything which we have ever had presented to us in our historical romances. To take a single instance, Scott's medieval knights were usually muscular athletes in the prime of life. Bois-Gilbert, Front-de-Boeuf, Richard, Ivanhoe, Count Robert — they were all such. But the most famous knights in Froissart were old, crippled, blinded. Chandos, the best lance of his day, was, I believe, over 80 when he lost his life through being charged upon the side on which he had already lost an eye. He was well on to 70 when he rode out from the English army and slew the Spanish champion, big Martin Ferrera upon the morning of Navaretta.
Youth and strength were very useful, no doubt, but these who had lost them could still carry to the wars their wiliness, their experience with arms and their desperate courage.
Chandos must have particularly impressed Froissart's imagination, for again and again he draws little pictures of him which we cannot forget. You may remember that one of the English fleet starting from Winchelsea (I think it was Winchelsea) to meet the Spanish fleet, which by a courteous prearrangement was to start from the other side so as to fight in the centre of the channel. It was the kind of scene upon which Froissart would dwell with an unctuous delight, for he was thoroughly a man of his age, and it was an age when the churchman merged himself very easily in the soldier. Chandos, then in his prime, sat in the bows of the leading ship with a broad-brimmed Flemish hat on, and he sang certain songs which he had learned of late, playing his accompaniment upon a mandolin. It was a scene characteristic of the age, the two great fleets drawing together with the flutter of flags and the flash of arms, and then the first fighting man of England picking out his tune upon his mandolin. It was all so debonair and light-hearted. But the work was done all the same. The channel was smeared with red that day, and at night there were twenty high ships in Winchelsea port which had never started from it in the morning.
Debonair — that is the very word invented to describe the thing. The knight was bloody-minded and ferocious. There was little quarter save where a ransom might be claimed. But with it all he was light-hearted and true to-his curious code. Chivalry was a huge game and the players were never too serious over it. There was no personal feeling or bitterness as there might be now in a war between Frenchmen and Germans. On the contrary, the old knights were very soft-spoken and polite to each other. "Is there any small vow of which I might relieve you ?" "Would you wish to attempt some little deed of arms upon me?" And in midst of a fight they would stop and converse before renewing it. with many compliments upon each other's prowess. When Seaton, the Scotchman, had exchanged as many blows as he wished with a company of French knights, he said, "Thank you! Thank you!" and galloped away. An Englishman made a vow "for his own advancement and the exaltation of his lady" that he would ride into the city of Paris and touch a certain part with his lance. When the French knights at the barrier saw him coming they perceived that he must be under vow, so they drew aside and encouraged him to discharge himself of it. This he did, and as he galloped back they cried out to him, "You have carried yourself very well, sir." It chanced, however, that on the sidewalk there stood a certain unmannerly butcher who understood nothing of the rules of the game, so as the Englishman passed, this low-born fellow forgot himself so far as to brain him with his poleaxe. Froissart gives no sequel to the story, but it would be quite in keeping with what one would expect to find that one of the French knights passed his lance through the body of the presumptuous butcher.
Before My Bookcase (5/6)
Greenley's "Arctic Service" — Some Prizes From the Second Hand Man — The Inimitable Marbot and French Memoirs in General
It is a very long jump from Froissart and his successor, De Comines, to Greeley's "Arctic Service," and yet you see that chance has drifted them together upon my book shelf. They have at least this in common — that they all commemorate the gallantry of man. This book of Greeley's made a deep impression upon me when I read it. There are incidents in it which a man can never forget. The episode of those twenty odd men lying upon that horrible bluff, and dying one a day from cold and hunger and scurvy, is one which dwarfs all the tragedies of romance. And the gallant starving leader giving lectures on abstract science in an attempt to take the thoughts of the dying men away from their sufferings — what a picture! It is bad to suffer from cold, and bad to suffer from hunger, and bad to live in the dark, but that men could do all these for six months on end, and that some should live to tell the tale is indeed a marvel. What a world of feeling lies in the exclamation of the poor dying lieutenant: "Well, this is wretched!" he groaned as he turned his face to the wall.
The Anglo-Celtic race has always run to individualism, and yet there is none which is capable of conceiving and carrying out a higher ideal of discipline. There is nothing in Greek or Roman annals more sternly fine than the story of the British regiment who went down in their ranks in the "Birkenhead." And this expedition of Greeley's gave rise to another instance hardly less remarkable. You remember that when there were only about eight of the unfortunates left, hardly able to move for weakness and hunger, the seven took the old man out upon the ice and shot him dead for a breach of discipline. And the whole grim proceeding was carried one with as much method and signing of papers as if they were all within sight of the Capitol at Washington. His offense had consisted, as far as I can remember, of stealing and eating the thong which bound two portions of a sledge together — something about as tempting as a boot lace. It is only fair to the commander, however, to say that it was one of a series of petty larcenies and that the thong of a sledge might mean life or death to the whole party.
THE GLAMOR OF THE ARCTIC.
Personally I must confess that anything bearing upon the Arctic seas is always of the deepest interest to me. He who has once been within the borders of that mysterious region, which can be both the most lovely and the most repellant upon earth, must always retain something of its glamor. The memory of that inexpressible air of the great flats of deep blue water arid of spotless ice, of the cloudless sky shading away into a light green and then into a, yellowish white at the horizon, of the sudden mists, and the strange fantastic shapes seen through them. of the swarming, companionable birds, of the huge water animals, of the slug-like seals startlingly black against the ice fields, it will all come back to him in his dreams, and will seem to him hardly more substantial, so removed is it from the main stream of his life. And then to play a fish a hundred tons in weight and worth £2000 — but what in the world has all this to do with my bookcase!
Flammarion's "L'Atmosphere" is my next book, you see, and a very gorgeous one it is, with its colored illustrations and its red and gold cover. The book has a small history and I value it. A young Frenchman dying of fever upon the west coast of Africa gave it to me as a professional fee. The sight of it takes me back to a little ship's bunk and a sallow face with large black eyes looking out at me. Poor boy, I fear he never saw his beloved Marseilles again.
AN EGG BOX OF DECAYING VOLUMES.
There used to be a book shop in Edinburgh which had a large egg box in front of the door three parts full of volumes in various stages of decay.
Above hung the inviting legend: "All books in this box twopence." I never passed without diving into this lucky bag, where among heaps of theological literature, obsolete algebras, torn Latin grammars and tables of logarithms, one might occasionally come upon what would repay one. Many a twopenny classic have I upon my book shelves. The two volumes of "Sully's Memoirs," and the "Gordon's Tacitus" and the "Essays of Sir William Temple" and the queer little book of international law all came from the egg box. This latter is worth looking into, so brown at the edges, so squat, and with such a bullet-proof cover. The date you see is 1642, so it was printed when Charles head was still firm upon his shoulders and when the Pilgrim Fathers were just getting fairly settled in their new home. On the flyleaf, in the dimmest of ink is written "ex libris Gulielimi Whyte, 1672." If one had to reconstruct the forgotten Willie Whyte one would say that he was a pragmatical seventeenth century lawyer. So, at least, I always picture him when I look at his angular twistified writing.
THE BEST PICTURE OF NAPOLEON'S SOLDIERS.
It was a real blow to me when someone began to throw doubts upon the authenticity of "Marbot's Memoirs." Homer may be thrown over to the critics and dissolved into a crowd of skin-clad bards. Even Shakespeare might be threatened by the Baconian without causing me more than a passing pang. But the inimitable Marbot! His book is the one which gives us the best picture by far of the Napoleonic soldiers, and to me they are even more interesting than their great leader, although his is the most singular figure in history. But those soldiers, with their huge shakoes, their hairy knapsacks and their hearts of steel — what men they were! And what a latent power there must be in the French nation which could go on pouring out the blood of its sons for twenty-three years with hardly a pause! It took all that time to work off the hot ferment which the revolution had set up in men's veins. And the very last fight which the French fought was the finest of all. Proud as we are of our infantry at Waterloo, if was with the French cavalry that the laurels of the action really rested. They practically exterminated our own cavalry, they took our guns again and again, they swept our allies from the field and they finally rode off unbroken and as full of fight as ever.
It must be confessed that Marbot's details are occasionally a little hard to believe. Never in the pages of Lever has there been such a series of daredevil exploits and hair-breadth escapes. You may remember his adventures at Austerlitz — how a cannon ball striking the top of his helmet paralyzed him by the concussion of his spine, and how on a Russian officer running forward to cut him down his horse bit the man's face off. It needs a robust faith to get over the incident. And yet when one reflects upon the hundreds of battles and skirmishes which a Napoleonic officer must have endured — how they must have been the uninterrupted routine of his life from the first dark hair on his lip to the first gray one upon his head. It is hard to say what may or may not be possible in such a career. At any rate, be it fact or fiction, there are few books which I could not spare from my shelves better than the memoirs of the gallant Marbot.
NEGLECT OF THE BRITISH SAILOR.
French literature is rich in every department, but richest of all in its memoirs. Whenever there was anything interesting going forward there was also some kindly gossip who knew all about it, ready to set it down for posterity. Our own history has not nearly enough of these charming sidelights. Look at our sailors in the Napoleonic war, for example. For over 20 years freedom was a refugee upon the seas. Had our navy been swept away, then all Europe would have been one organized despotism. At times everybody was against us — fighting against their own interests under the pressure of that iron Corsican hand. We fought on the waters with the French, with the Spanish, with the Dutch, with the Danes, with the Russians, with the Turks, even with our American brothers. Middies grew into post-captains and admirals into dotards during that prolonged struggle. And what have we in literature to show for it ? Marryatt's novels, many of which are founded on personal experiences, Nelson's and Collingswood's letters, Lord Cochrane's autobiography — that is almost all. No doubt our sailors were too busy to do much writing, but none the less one cannot but marvel that out of the thousands there were so few who understood what a treasure these experienced would have been to their descendants. I have often looked at the old three-deckers rotting in Portsmouth harbor and thought had they but the power, what a missing chapter in our literature they could supply!
THE BEST OF FRENCH MEMOIRS BY WOMEN.
It is usually the French women who have been so, considerate of posterity. Their letters and their recollections make the history of their country more attractive to the romance writer than our own can be, for with their keen feminine observation of trifles they make us realize the times and the times and the people as a mere catalogue of events can never do. One may read every history ever written about Napoleon, for example, and never realize the man as one does when one looks through the eyes of Madame de Remusat. Through her we know him as if we had seen and talked to him as if we had seen and talked to him. His singular mixture of the small and the great. His huge imagination, his limited knowledge, his intense egotism; his impatience of obstacles, his phenomenal grasp of detail, his boorishness, his impertinence to women, his diabolical playing upon the weak side of everyone with whom he came in contact — they make up among them the most striking of historical portraits — and of the very man whose portrait we should most wish to have. The world owes a huge debt to French literature, and to his department of it above all others.
Before My Bookcase (6/6)