A Talk About Parsons

— However it may have been with the world in general, that part of it which we call literary has always found the parson interesting. As a personage he has discovered sharp contrasts to the rest of humanity, and has not been without contradictions in himself which are available for purposes of the novelist’s art. Nearly every great writer of fiction has used him as a foil; and when other subjects of ridicule and sarcasm fail, the clergyman remains an ever present resource. As a rule, we do not find him in the drama except in caricature; even Shakespeare creating only the great prelate, the ecclesiastic on the side of his relations to the state. But since the novel has driven the drama out of the literary field, fiction has held the mirror up to every phase of clerical character, from the improvident Vicar of Wakefield, in whom Goldsmith reflected so much of his own personality, to the Dean Maitlands and Reverend Apostates, the Robert Elsmeres and John Wards, of our own day. No one would think of accusing Hawthorne of. churchy inclinations, and yet the fact remains that no human product seems to have had the fascination for his mind which he found in that unique individual, the New England minister of a century ago. Even George Eliot, with her secularist tendencies, rarely failed, in a novel, to pay her respects to a profession which must have appealed to her only upon the literary side ; nor was her singularly catholic mind wanting in a genuine and tender appreciation of the difficulties as well as the ideal aspects of the minister’s work. How, too, Trollope delighted in clergymen, reveling in the petty details of curate existence as if he shared that absorption in their person and function which is commonly ascribed to women of uncertain prospects and a sentimental turn of mind! And what a hopeless figure that same novelist would have made in a new world like ours, without any religious establishment and a social life conditioned in its mild monotonies !

In the field of actual literary achievement, also, should we not miss that gentle lover of the fields, Gilbert White of Selborne, who knew so well how to serve men in the double capacity of naturalist and pastor ? George Crabbe may not be a great poet, but it is pleasant to think of him, after his safe anchorage in the Church, as solacing his own life, if not compelling the attention of afterages, with the respectable mediocrity of his verse. Who does not like to take the road with preaching, fighting, gypsying George Borrow, whose heart always spoke in Romany, whatever language might be on his lips ! Few have done more to enliven our literature than Dean Swift and Sydney Smith, to say nothing of that laughter-loving Mr. Ingoldsby, who was known in the pulpit as Rev. Richard H. Barham. Not every one recalls that the best two drinkingsongs in the language were written by clergymen, — The Brown Jug, by Rev. Francis Fawkes, and that Drinking Song by John Still, Bishop of Bath and Wells in the sixteenth century, which Warton calls the first chanson a boire of any merit in the English tongue. What a saving quality of reaction there is in the humor and playful abandon of such divines as Mather Byles, Norman Macleod, and Janies Hannington, as if. uncompromising and devoted as they are, their very seriousness made them capable of a boyishness denied to the rest of mankind!

One hopes, moreover, that under the leveling conditions of democracy the type may not he losing somewhat of its variety, and becoming less picturesque and interesting to the unprejudiced observer. The clerical figure seems best projected upon the background of a state church, with its definite social adjustment and its permitted freedom of action. What other religious organization could contain and tolerate at the same time so many differing phases of the genus parson as the English Establishment? And whether he belong to the praying, fighting, drinking, racing, or fox-hunting♦ order, where else is he so certain of commanding the deference due to his cloth ? This latitude, allowed him for the institution’s sake, has at least tended to keep him up to the mark of manly vigor and that all-round sympathy with life so necessary to his function and office. For when men justify their indifference to religion by recalling the mot that there are three sexes, men, women, and clergymen, it is evident that a more than artistic loss has been suffered.

But parsons will he parsons; and, say what we may in their disfavor, the human drama would be incomplete without them. One does not like to contemplate the world with the clerical element wholly left out ; but perhaps there is no other way of bringing us to a realizing sense of the profession and the place it occupies in life.