The Correspondence of Sir Henry Taylor
THERE are few literary pleasures greater than to read the familiar correspondence of men of intellectual cultivation ; and when, as in the case of Sir Henry Taylor, it extends over a long life, and has outlooks upon several eminent groups in both politics and literature, one may expect this pleasure in an unusual degree. Taylor was a hardworking man in the colonial office all his life; he wrote, beside other poetical works, a drama, Philip van Arteveldt, which is thought to be one of the best plays of the century, and has had a continuous sale for fifty years ; and his social position allowed him to see much of distinguished persons. The best of his life has been already made public in his Autobiography, to which the present volume 1 is a pendant, but by no means a superfluous one. It is concerned more with others than with himself. He entered life with the young men of whom Mill and Spedding were the most intellectual, and his friendship with the latter was lifelong. His own temperament shared rather the seriousness and sound judgment of such companions than the traditional enthusiasm and spirituality of the poetic character. In youth he suffered from those irrational depressions which vex men of nervous organization, and of these we get some impressions by way of reminiscence when he visited the country where he passed those days. He speaks, late in life, of having lost the sense of nervous enjoyment which he felt in the beginning of his poetic career. Were it not for such touches as these, here and there in the pages, we should hardly see the poet in him at all. On the other hand, his mind was constitutionally practical, even skeptical, slow to accept and slower to be fired ; he says, in one of his earlier letters, that he never had a devotional feeling, and he betrays no sign of one in his later utterances. It was a singular mind, sympathetic with the political economists and the business of administration in which he was engaged, and, at the other extreme, delighting in Wordsworth. The two elements, the intellectual and the literary, were admirably blended, and the result was an elevated if not a great life, and one of remarkable harmony within itself. In one place, he comments on finding himself more an observer of nature, perhaps from being less occupied with thoughts, that he used “ to love poetry for its own sake, but nature for the sake of poetry ; ” and this shows that his start was rather in a literary impulse than in an inspiration. Then, too, the daily work at the desk must have had its effect, and he notes that his strength was thus regularly too much diverted to allow of writing poetry, which he calls one of the most exciting and exhausting of pleasures. He could not always command that leisure, sense of solitude, hope, and high opinion of his powers which he enumerates as the necessities of poetic production. More than all, he came late to the practice of the art; he wrote slowly and with much labor of thought; and though his work has taken a very respectable rank, one gets the impression that the poetic spark in him smouldered rather than burned. But it was not necessary that he should be a great poet, and, though it may sound paradoxical, his nature was too capacious to let him be a poet of the second rank ; he was rather a remarkable type of the intellectual man, with the soundest moral qualities in the exercise of his mind, and it is for this that he is interesting. Our present concern, however, is rather with those whom he knew than with himself.
The first group with which he was brought in contact was that of Wordsworth and Southey and some of their friends. He occasionally met both of these men, and through Miss Fenwick, with whom he was intimate, he had nearer views. He presents Wordsworth, on his visits to London, on his most amiable side, and really makes him attractive ; but Miss Fenwick’s letters are the more interesting. She bears testimony to Wordsworth’s emotional nature, which may have some bearing on his excuse that he did not write love-poems because they would have been too passionate. “ What strange workings are there in his great mind, and how fearfully strong are all his feelings and affections ! If his intellect had been less powerful, they must have destroyed him long ago ; but even in the midst of his strongest emotions his attention may be attracted to some intellectual speculation, or his imagination excited by some of those external objects which have such influence over him ; and his feelings subside like the feelings of a child, and he will go out and compose some beautiful sonnet.” There are traits enough mentioned that are well known, — his self-confidence, heaviness, delight in household praise, an old man’s vanity ; but as Miss Fenwick never loses the attitude of admiration, there is nothing ill-natured in such confessions. Crabb Robinson was with the family, and she deprecates his criticism in advance. She has a bit of bright portraiture of him: “ I really like him very well, and never cease wondering how he has managed to preserve so much kindliness and courtesy in his bachelor state. He and old Wishaw are the only exceptions I have met with to the tendency it has to deaden all love but selflove ; but these two men seem both to love themselves and to make others love them. I remember making out to my own satisfaction that Wishaw preserved his benevolence through the want of his leg, — a want that made him feel his dependence on his fellow-creatures, while it called forth their sympathy and kindness, and all those little attentions which cultivate affection both in the giver and receiver of them ; and thus I imagined that the heart of old Wishaw was kept humble, grateful, and loving. But Crabb Robinson ... I thought, the other day, when I was contemplating him while he was asleep (he always sleeps when he is not talking), that his ugliness had done that for him which the want of a leghad done for old Wishaw: it was great enough to excite compassion and kindness, which awakened his affections as well, perhaps, as a wife and children would have done, and made him the kind, serviceable creature he is.”
Taylor’s sketches of Wordsworth naturally have not the freshness that belongs to reminiscences of men who have been less frequently described, but they have the merit of directness. He reports him in London as “ mixing with all manner of men and delighting in various women, for he says his passion has always been for the society of women ; ” and Lockhart is quoted as saying that when Wordsworth met Jeffrey for the first time there, the poet “ played the part of a man of the world to perfection, much better than the smaller man, and did not appear to be conscious of anything having taken place between them before.” Taylor himself describes the old poet as “ one of the most extraordinary human phenomena that one could have in the house. He has the simplicity and helplessness of a child in regard to the little transactions of life ; and whilst he is being directed and dealt with in regard to these, he keeps tumbling out the highest and deepest thoughts that the mind of man can reach, in a stream of discourse, which is so oddly broken by the little hitches and interruptions of common life that we admire and laugh at him by turns. Everything that comes into his mind comes out, — weakness or strength, affection or vanities.” But this is the Wordsworth that the biographies all know.
Of other men of the time there are here and there a few glimpses, sometimes given with satirical humor. This is how Sadler looked at a dinner with Southey : “ He talked slowly, clumsily, and continually ; and when he stumbled in his talk and broke down, he got slowly up again and tried to do better, without appearing to be sensible that anything awkward had happened to him, or that everybody had hoped and expected that the break - down would finish him. After tea, however, he got warmer and more flexible in his discourse, and at the same time not so hopelessly continuous, and seemed as if at times he might be agreeable, and at other times silent.” There is, too, a biting characterization of “ my Lord Jeffrey,” in whose case, of course, Taylor was not without some disturbing remembrance of what the critic had been to Wordsworth ; but he thought him worth seeing, “in order to understand by what small springs mankind may be moved from time to time. There came from him, with a sort of dribbling fluency, the very mince-meat of small talk, with just such a seasoning of cleverness as might serve to give it an air of pretension.” He compares Wilson— “ a jolly, fair-haired ruffian, full of fire and talent, big and burly, and at the same time wild and animated ” — to O’Connell, and remarks that he had “ never seen two men, each striking in himself, whose appearance bore so much the same moral stamp.” Of Southey nothing remarkable is recorded ; but the relations between him and Taylor were full of respect upon both sides, and there are some letters of advice from the younger to the older man, in which there is admirable sense for all literary men who criticise public affairs. His distinction between the different degrees of responsibility generated by the duty of writing and that of acting upon subjects of public concern is most important, and his criticism on Southey’s style, that “ contempt, if it is to be believed to be genuine, must be, not expressed, but betrayed,” is a convenient epigram for a polemical writer to keep always about him. But of all this earlier circle the most attractive figure is certainly that of Miss Fenwick, whose virtues were of that kind which too seldom sees the light. Her character, however, is felt rather than observed ; there is no portrait of her in these letters, but very much is suggested, and one sees her chiefly by the reflection of her personality from the esteem and affection of Taylor and Aubrey de Vere. The latter pays a tribute to her, at the time of her death, in a letter to Taylor, which is the most humane in the whole series. On an earlier page he had said that her moral nature was greater than Wordsworth’s, and here he speaks of her with such affection and sensitiveness to the unhappiness of her life, and in so pure a religious spirit, as to bring home to the reader the memory of a high nature.
To come to Taylor’s own contemporaries, none of them who contribute letters to this volume impresses one more pleasantly than De Vere. He was a lifelong friend and a poet besides, and he expressed himself frankly, and often with fullness, in his correspondence. He was the only one, Taylor confides to him, who thought as highly of the latter’s verses as he did himself, and there was a good deal of poetic talk between them upon each other’s work. De Vere’s mind is subtle, and yet one that looks at things in the mass and as a whole; not that he generalizes, but he is continuous, a seeker after unity and comprehensiveness at once. Taylor says of him that his life was a soliloquy ; certainly his thoughts have the characteristics of a mind working in solitude and largely within itself. This gives distinction to his letters, and the extraordinary refinement of his nature adds a grace which is never absent, and often comes upon one in some unexpected word, some minor thought, of the beauty of which the writer is unconscious. It is something more, however, that we obtain here a few personal glimpses of him. In one place we find him “ an efficient mob-orator.” It was during the Irish disturbances of 1847. “The troops came to attack a mob of several thousands, and, finding that they were in Aubrey’s hands, who had stopped them and was making a speech from the top of a wall, the officer in command very wisely took away the troops, and Aubrey brought them to reason, and persuaded them to give up their enterprise and disperse.” At another time he had an adventure with some men who came to kill a steward whom he had refused to dismiss, and in this case, too, “ his invariable self-possession ” stood him in good stead ; but his knowledge of the people and their knowledge of him seem to have been the cause of his success in dealing with them. In other passages we find him winning a good word from Carlyle, after the battle between them (Carlyle being “ furiously and extravagantly irreverent ”) was over ; and in general, lightness of heart goes with his serious mind and kind manner. But such a man is best seen in his own words, though one will readily understand the feeling that there is a kind of privacy in this portion of the correspondence, an intimacy with a living man, which sometimes rebukes observation.
The friendship between the two poets imparts a more personal element than is elsewhere to be found in the volume, except where Taylor writes of his own youthful days,
to his wife. We feel this closeness when De Vere speaks of his “ vexation at Alice’s getting ill as the carriage wound up the steep hill to Perugia, and the strange touch of grief I felt at observing for the first time what looked like a solid tress of gray in your hair, as you stood before me at church in Naples.” For the spirit of this friendship we leave the reader to search in what will not prove the least valuable portion of this collection ; but before leaving the subject let us quote a short passage from De Vere’s own retrospect: “ Although there is a melancholy about the past, still the best scenes it presents to our memory seem to me presented even more to one’s hope. They are less records of what was than pledges of what may be, and therefore must be in that far future that alone makes either present or past intelligible. One knows, looking back on them, that somehow they were not all that they seem to have been; or rather that, though they were all, and more than all, yet they were not either felt aright or understood aright at the moment.” We must find space, too, for De Vere’s account of Tennyson’s conservatism : “ ‘ You are quite a conservative,’ I said to him, one day. He replied, ‘ I believe in progress, and would conserve the hopes of men.’ ” This was in 1848, and Tennyson was also saying in very good British, “ Let us not see a French soldier land on the English shores, or I will tear him limb from limb.” The occasional violence of the Laureate’s prose, however, is not a new thing in our anecdotes.
There is a good deal, in one way and another, about Carlyle, the best being Taylor’s remark à propos of Frederick : “ The defect of Carlyle’s book is one that belongs to the author, and which I once ventured to mention to him, — that he does not know the difference between right and wrong.” Some years before, in 1845, he made a happy quotation with regard to Carlyle’s style: “ His light comes in flashes, and
The jaws of darkness do devour it up ; ’ ’
and he comments on the general subject of Carlyle’s teaching : “I suppose that it will generally be found that when a man quarrels with all the world for not giving an intelligible account of the ways of Providence, it is because he is much perplexed at them himself.” Later on, in 1848, he says : “ Less instructive talk I never listened to from any man who had read and attempted to think. His opinions are the most groundless and senseless opinions that it is possible to utter. ... I think it is the great desire to have opinions and the incapacity to form them which keeps his mind in a constant struggle, and gives it over to every kind of extravagance.” Taylor never formed a more favorable opinion. In 1868 he compares him to “ a Puritan of the seventeenth century, — that is, in his nature and character of mind (not, of course, in his creed, if he has one) ; a man who renounces argument and reasoning which every other intellectual man of the time thinks it necessary to stand upon, and trusts to visions and insights.” Upon Carlyle, Aubrey de Vere, too, has a good sentence with regard to the democrats not being very angry with him : “ The Revolutionary people readily forgive his phrases in praise of despotic rule, just as the Whigs forgave Moore for His Irish patriotism, when they found he was contented to hang his harp on the orange-trees in the conservatories at Holland Park. Carlyle’s admirers feel that his works are at the Revolutionary side.”
It is impossible to do more than touch upon many of the other interesting personal sketches and scraps of reminiscence that are to be found. Sir James Stephens, who took the interest of an elderly man in Taylor, is very welcome whenever he appears in the correspondence ; and so is James Spedding, though he was not a good letter-writer. Taylor characterizes the latter’s mind very sharply, in one place. He is speaking of Spedding’s possible influence in causing Tennyson’s revolt from Gladstone. “ There is in it [his mind], however, a leaning to the controversial, which involves, perhaps, some tincture of the spirit of contradiction. If left to himself, he will contradict himself, till he works himself into just thinking and comes to a correct conclusion. But if a man like Gladstone is positive and absolute and vehement, and all on one side, the spirit will lift up its head and hiss like a serpent that is trodden on.” In connection with this, and in general with the place Gladstone occupies in the politics at the end of the volume, it is amusing to turn back to the year 1839, and find Taylor writing of him, “ Two wants, however, may lie across his political career, — want of robust health and want of flexibility.” Old Lord Ashburton is very keenly drawn, especially in regard to his power of seeing all sides of a question, so that he was said to be notorious for convincing everybody in the House of Commons but himself, for he “ generally ended by voting in the teeth of his own speech.” To this earlier period belongs, too, a parlor scene of the Duke of Wellington with Miss Jervis singing to him and entertaining him, — just the sort of scene that one would find only in a letter. Among the brightest social sketches, however, is that of the scene at Lady Ashburton’s table when Tennyson was a new-comer at the seat of honor beside her, and Taylor gave him warning : “ Twenty years ago I was the last new man, and where am I now ? ” Whereupon the lady rose in defense of her constancy, and reminded him of his marriage, and ended by saying that “ of course one’s affection for one’s old friends was a different thing.” Then, Tennyson asking “ ‘ what time it took to make an old friend,’ I replied that with her five years reduced it to the decencies of dry affection; ” and on Lady Ashburton’s again coming to the defense of the lasting character of her attachments, Taylor said that he did “ not dispute that they hardened into permanence. But what I was speaking of was the case of Alfred Tennyson, and I could only say that this time last year I had seen Mr. Goldwin Smith sitting by her side at dinner, just as I had seen Alfred Tennyson yesterday ; and that I expected to see Alfred Tennyson this time next year occupying the Position which I was told Mr. Goldwin Smith had occupied when he was here last week. I had not seen it myself, but it had been described to me. He came to the Grange last year, innocent and happy in the bloom of youth, with violet eyes; and what he was now I had not seen, but I had heard of it.” Then Lady Ashburton explained that a stranger is often shy, and so on, and Tennyson broke in with, “ Then it appears, by what you say yourself, that you do not show me any particular favors.” She said, “ Well, it is a different sort of feeling that one has for a new friend and an old one; but you, Mr. Venables, are now almost an old acquaintance, and you can say what you feel about it.” “Then,” the narrative goes on in Taylor swords, “as Venables was beginning to bear his testimony, to his infinite horror Alfred said, ‘ Why, you told me yourself that Lady Ashburton had been very kind to you at first, and that now ’ — Here Venables stopped him, speakingaside in a deprecating tone, and I ended the debate by saying, ‘ Well, Tennyson, all I can say is that my advice to you is to rise with your winnings and be off.’ Venables said to Mrs. Brookfield, afterwards, that Alfred was truly an enfant terrible.” This, as an example of conversation “ at the Grange,” is not without interest, for one does not often meet with verbatim reports of how the men and women talked at that famous meeting-place. It is pleasant to read in the next letter that “ there was no pain given in these passages between Lady Harriet and me,” but all was “light, gay, stingless talk.”
Another portion of the correspondence deals with political affairs, and here one finds Lord Gray, whose love of justice is a most noticeable trait, and, besides Gladstone in person, talk about Disraeli, Governor Eyre, and the Jamaica incident, and such topics as reform of the penal code, Irish affairs, constitutional changes, Bulgaria, the colonial relations, and the like ; but this portion of the contents is incidental and comparatively small. It is interesting to observe that to a lifelong opposition to field-sports and a horror of vivisection Taylor added a belief in the efficacy of the lash upon criminals, and in general of sharp physical punishments, though he disapproved, apparently, of employing such correctives upon hardened offenders. The inconsistency, from the sentimental point of view, is solved by remembering that Taylor thought out these conclusions rationally, instead of arriving at them by sensitive feelings. His defense of the whippingpost goes to the point of advocacy. Of the persons who are to be met with, in this part of the letters, Lord Gray is by far the most impressive ; and of the lesser men, the Elliots are most attractive. The figure of Sir John Grant is one not to be met with outside of the English hunting-grounds, and it is briefly drawn : “ I found him in what the house-agents call a ‘ spacious mansion,’ with glowing pictures on the walls, presenting divers interesting objects without clothes. And I found flesh in a variety of other exquisite forms upon the dinner-table, and he looked a tall, large, solid, substantial man, with a russet face expressing ease and comfort; and I asked him what could induce him to leave all this, and ‘ live laborious days ’ in Jamaica. His answer was : ‘ I cannot tell you, for I do not know. When I came from India, three years since, I found my leisure altogether delightful, and came to the conclusion that what I was made for was to swing upon a gate. I have seen no reason to think otherwise since, and why I am going to Jamaica I cannot understand ! ’ I hear,” concludes Taylor, “ he was infinitely laborious as LieutenantGovernor of Bengal, and that he is one of the few men to whom idleness and labor are equally welcome.” But the life-likeness of Taylor’s portraiture and anecdote is well enough known from his Autobiography. In age his pen was more effective than in early manhood, and seems to have been more free in comment. His remark upon Macaulay’s personal appearance, in connection with the latter’s expressing some vanity on hearing that the handsomest woman in London had pronounced his profile to be a study for an artist, is an admirable example of the vigor of his short sentences in latter days. “ His looks,” writes Taylor, “ always seemed to me the most impudent contradiction of himself that Nature had ever dared to throw in a man’s face.”
The correspondence as a whole is a subsidiary volume; but apart from the more important Autobiography, it has a high value of its own as a collection of letters by men and women of cultivation, and one feels in them the presence of social tact and manners, as well as much strength of mind, occasional wit, and in one case, at least, remarkable grace in expression. They are a record of London life, notwithstanding the fact that the correspondents often lived in the country ; for it was London that united them. It is quite in keeping with the tone of the book to find Taylor himself, in early manhood, so much a Londoner as to confess that “ the Regent’s Park is more beautiful in my eyes than Venice; ” and he follows up the declaration by a description of his evening walk there before going to bed, which redeems his preference for “ the most beautiful civic scenery in the world.” The intellectual life of London is a bracing one, and here one gets somewhat nearer to it than books often bring the reader, and finds himself always in excellent company for the mind. Taylor’s individuality naturally gives unity and a dominant tone to the volume, and that is perhaps the reason why we are so constantly impressed with the solidity of mind and soundness of judgment which seem to belong to all these correspondents.
- Correspondence of Henry Taylor. Edited by EDWARD DOWDEN. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1888.↩