Contemporary Essays

THE English periodical owes its existence to the essay, the Spectator and Tatler having been the magazines of their day as well as the classics of their century, and it is by a sort of alternate generation in literature that the periodical in turn brings forth essays after its kind ; of all kinds, rather, for there are few topics that are not touched upon nowadays in neat little volumes of mosaic contents. With some readers, this connection of essay and periodical exposes the former to a certain disfavor, of the sort with which yesterday’s baking is regarded in the South. It is hard to judge rightly of a literature that is slipping past us, and it is well to keep a little of it, if only to find out whether it is worth keeping. Sir Edward Strachey, in the November Atlantic, quotes Maurice as saying “ that a man might bring greater honor to his name by writing a great book, . . . yet that he believed more real work was done in the world by having a part in, and writing on, the actual controversies of the day in which men were taking a practical interest.” Here the consideration is an ethical one, but even from a literary standpoint there is something to be said in favor of writing on a small scale and for the present moment. In an age when the creative gift is rare and the affirmative force weakened, some of the best and truest work can be done in a loose literary form like the essay, which is without pretension, almost in fact apologetic, lending itself equally to directness or subtlety of treatment. The form may be regarded simply as a vehicle for the expression of the thought, as is commonly the case with the political or speculative essay; or it may be cultivated daintily and for its own sake, as is more apt to be done in the social essay, which demands for its perfection something of the novelist’s outfit, or in the personal essay, which is next door to the journal or autobiography, but lays its author under less rigid vows as to accuracy of statement.

Many of the best modern essays are in the line of criticism, and here the supremacy of the French is incontestable. The English miscellaneous writers excel in the discussion of topics political, social, or speculative. The monthly and weekly reviews in England, manned by sturdy, well-informed writers, surpass the French, and leave our performance in that kind far behind. In our own literature, which is still, as a whole, pretty desultory, and about which it behooves us, under Mr. Gosse’s recent judgments, to be modest, the essay pure and simple, after the old models, seems to have found a congenial soil. Our high-water mark of thought or literary achievement is Emerson’s Essays ; and since Addison undertook to bring philosophy down to the club and the tea-table no one has brewed a finer combination of philosophy and tea than Dr. Holmes.

Mr. Myers1 comes to hand as an example of the sturdiness of treatment which we have cited as an English trait. Even when he handles such an impalpable, not to say unprofitable subject as the ghost of psychological research, he does so with a definiteness, vigor, and intellectual conscientiousness that go far to clothe that marrowless creation with dignity, if they do not invest it with life. To speak first of sturdiness, however, in connection with Mr. Myers is to give a wrong impression of his literary personality. He is not a mere topical writer, but a man of letters, who began as a poet, and in whom the poet is still alive. His Saint Paul has passed a little out of sight, but still lingers in many memories. His Classical Essays are more widely known, and have a similar haunting attractiveness. In the present volume, which is made up of essays on both literary and speculative topics, or rather, on one subject viewed in both lights, the literary interest is throughout intended to be subordinate ; but the literary spirit is still dictator, giving to the book the stamp of individual charm, and of another unity than that of theme. It has the high earnestness of the author’s Saint Paul ; the intelligence, at once active and meditative, of the Classical Essays.

The spiritual attitude which it reveals is in a way a remarkable one. The melancholy but admirable essay on The Disenchantment of France shows how profoundly and sympathetically Mr. Myers has felt that spiritual void and desolation of which, as he acknowledges, France offers a spectacle, not solitary, but more complete than the rest of the world. The paper is poignant with the feeling of one to whom the loss of faith in the world at large is the subject of as deep a regret as the loss of his own. Science is the cause of this misery. Mr. Myers does not attack science nor revolt against its conclusions ; he does not, like Signor Valdes’s Father Gil, look to faith to give it the lie ; he does not, like Robert Elsmere or Mark Rutherford, cling to the best thought that disenchantment has left to him, and make of it a sort of Spartan broth for the nourishment of the spirit. He recognizes that one aspect of the later phases of skepticism is the distrust of emotional guidance, and the very energy of his own emotions quickens this distrust. “ Faith, the clinging of the soul to the beliefs and ideals which she feels as spiritually the highest,” he considers indispensable ; but he goes on to say, “ Whereas in all ages a certain nucleus of ascertained fact has been regarded as faith’s needful prerequisite, the only difference is that, in our own day, so much of that ancient nucleus has shriveled away that some fresh accession is needed before the flower of faith can spring from it and shed fragrance on the unseen.” In other words, it is not religion, but what he calls material for religion, that Mr. Myers feels to be lacking. This material he is determined to wrest from science. Science speaks now the only recognized language of authority. The highest science is psychology. In the study of psychology, therefore, lies the cure for our ills, and in psychological research, in scientific evidence of a return to this world after death, Mr. Myers sees the substantial nucleus needed for faith, and an encouragement for hope to spring eternal, as it has temporarily ceased to spring, in the human breast. A new cosmic law, that of interpenetration of spirit and matter, is to bring salvation, and Mr. Myers is confident that the proper material will at once produce the religion. He declares, with a gravity that is disturbed by no undertone of humor, “ The negative presumption will therefore be shaken if accepted notions as to man’s personality are shown to he gravely defective, while it will be at once overthrown ” (his own italics) “ if positive evidence to man’s survival of bodily death can in any way be acquired.” Without attempting to argue on supernatural grounds with the discoverer of a new cosmic law, we would venture to indicate the superiority in point of knowledge of the world of another prediction, made two thousand years ago, which says, “ Neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Nothing could be more unlike Mr. Myers’s lofty sadness and visionary ardor of hope than the temper with which Mr. Balfour 2 surveys the world as it is, and reckons the probabilities of its future. He, too, insists upon belief in immortality as necessary to stimulate energy and make life worth living, but he does not press the question of how this belief is to be maintained in a disenchanted world. The world is. after all, not so very disenchanted, to his mind. To Mr. Myers, who is a poet and a man of sentiment, science seems to have said the irrefutable word. Mr. Balfour, who has a more practical mind, finds assurance in an attitude of doubt, in the conviction that science has not yet proved her points; in other words, he keeps his mental balance by being skeptical as to skepticism. His Defence of Philosophic Doubt was a brilliant arraignment of scientific infallibility, an employment of the Scotch philosophers’ dialectic of common sense for ends the opposite to theirs, and with far more effect. Mr. Balfour does not discuss what would happen if a traveler were to return with absolute proof of immortality, because his interest in the future is in ratio to its probability. Such a traveler would have to deal, however, with human nature, and the Fragment on Progress, which formed Mr. Balfour’s rectorial address at Glasgow, shows what he thinks of the likelihood that any argument or proof would essentially alter that leaven. It is interesting, in this and in the entertaining essay on Berkeley, to note the interaction and harmony of the author’s political and philosophical creeds and observations. For Berkeley Mr. Balfour has a strong admiration, for which there is every reason, and a peculiar sympathy, for which there are perhaps two special reasons. Berkeley was the author of a system of philosophy which showed that the existence of matter could not be proved, and of a book on Ireland which proved that the Irish question did not exist.

The present collection of addresses and essays is a less elaborate performance than Mr. Balfour’s former book, although there are plenty of evidences of the same philosophic acuteness. The leisure product of a mind active in other directions, these essays are at once very able and very light in weight ; extremely well written without indicating any special literary gift. They are much more rational than the essays of Mr. Myers, but the impression which they leave upon the mind is much slighter. There is something a trifle Macaulayan in the extraneous and orderly manner in which. Mr. Balfour marshals his ideas; there is a touch of finality in the ideas themselves. He states available but not always over-popular truths dispassionately, and without flinching ; he utters with great readiness neat sayings which are compact morsels of good sense rather than brilliant witticisms ; and he is always readable and entertaining.

‘ In the first essay of the book, The Pleasures of Reading, he is on Miss Repplier’s familiar ground, making a plea for pure pleasure in reading, a protest againt university courses of literature, and an onslaught upon all who make their intercourse with books a mere means towards ambition, duty, or any other end. The arguments put forth are similar to those employed by Miss Repplier,3 and the cause defended is practically the same as hers ; but the lady is the more stimulating and persuasive of the two writers,—partly, perhaps, because she is the more unreasonable.

Miss Repplier’s powers of persuasion are of the autocratic sort. She commands us to take pleasure in reading, and she summons so stirringly before us the old delights of romance, she brings up with such intimate touches those little joys of literature which, as Jean Paul says, “refresh us constantly, like house bread, and never bring disgust,” she speaks her mind in such a whole-hearted, racy, piquant way, that she bestows the pleasure in formulating the law. But if we presume to wander farther, and to take pleasure after our own fashion in other fields of literature, we are instantly made to feel as deserters from the flag. We must agree with the writer quickly, while we are in the way; and if our disagreement were to go so far as to impair the keenness and sympathy of our delight in her work, the penalty would certainly be ours, and the cost the loss of one of the choicest enjoyments that current literature in our own land and hour has to give.

Miss Repplier’s papers on literary subjects are hardly to be classed as critical essays. They belong rather to another genre which we may term the bookish essay. Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt wrote essays of this sort, the harvest of book-browsings, the distillation of individual perfumes from quiet gardens of literature, with no attempt at criticism beyond the report of the effect of a volume upon the personality of the essayist. It is in the lines of this bookish and personal tradition that Miss Repplier works. She has not the equipment for a critic, the perspective, the perception of relations; the power of being lost in other minds, and those the most widely divergent, without losing one’s literary bearings ; the sense of literature as an organic whole, and of its dependence upon life. She does not synthesize, nor find underlying agreement “ in many a heart-perplexing opposite.” She loves much, but not widely, and will neither run after new gods herself, nor allow her readers to do so. She is audaciously conservative, a free lance for the preservation of bounds. But in her own line, as a book-lover and personal essayist, she is admirable in endowment and performance. She has originality and art. She understands the manipulation of the essay, the amount of negligence permissible and even effective, and the requisite amount, of care. She says the most delightful and unexpected things, and says them in the happiest manner, with the exact measure of deliberation and unconsciousness, of humor and conviction. She quotes, as some of the old essayists loved to quote, with just that little stress of personality which is a new interpretation, an addition to the meaning such as may be given by a voice. It is probably one of the consequences of that decay in romantic interest for which Miss Repplier upbraids her public that our pleasure in reading has come to depend very much upon the stimulus of the moment, upon the turn of the phrase, the attitude of the author, upon the conversational powers of the hero and heroine rather than upon our hope of their ultimate happiness. Miss Repplier ministers to this pleasure in the detail. She is not always strong in construction. Her essay as a whole sometimes lacks backbone ; her phrase never does : it has strength, suppleness, precision ; moreover, it is a live phrase. To watch its movements, its dignity, its reserve, and its spring, above all to see these movements accommodated to those of Agrippina, is to get a little unstrenuous enjoyment out of the printed page. To find anything as good as Agrippina in the reproduction of cat attitude and of the mental domain of Tabhyland, one would have to turn to Gautier and to Pierre Loti; and in sheer litheness of description one would not find in their pages anything better. Agrippina is, on the whole, the deftest achievement of Miss Repplier’s vocabulary ; but we still remember Pleasure : a Heresy, as one of her most original and characteristic papers, and the one on Ennui, in the present volume, in which occurs the description of that “ small, compact, and enviable minority among us ” (a writer with less humor might easily have fallen into the blunder of calling it a majority) “ who, through no merit of their own, are incapable of being bored,” is a bit of writing calculated to afford satisfaction to the literary conscience of its author. The danger which seems to lie in the way of a writer like Miss Repplier is that of exhausting by limitation her range of subjects ; but the essential thing, after all, is to have found the right sphere, and Miss Repplier is by this time sufficiently mistress of her domain to extend it at her pleasure.

The want of material, of a substantial harvest of knowledge, with ideas vigorous enough to thresh and winnow it, has always been felt, and will long continue to exist in our literature, though it is a defect which time will probably make right. But if our prayer for more matter were granted with the condition of less art, we should be unfortunate. If Mr. James had gone into business in literature, and given up the unprofitable pursuit of writing as a fine art, we should have had less literature than we have had, although Mr. James’s own reputation might have been increased to an imposing extent by the sacrifice of a little subtlety, and the addition of some sawdust to his work. Mr. Barrett Wendell, in a volume of essays with the title Stelligeri,4 taken from the mention of deceased alumni in the old Harvard catalogue, deals with the American literature of the past, and in his principal essay devotes himself to proving that there is no American literature, that our stars are all excellent rushlights. His main point, that we have no literature, is easily proved, but the test which he applies to each author in turn seems to us a doubtful one. The fact that we have produced nothing which Englishmen, living under less crowded conditions in a new country, could not have produced does not of itself prove that we have no literature. Is there any reason why we should have produced a literature Contradictory to our history, why we should write as Choctaws or redeemed Africans? Yet this is Mr. Wendell’s touchstone. Nor is there much light thrown upon individuals by this line-and-rule method of criticism. Emerson is not merely a mild, good man like Whittier, nor does Hawthorne come under the same head as Longfellow. They might, for the sake of the argument, be left temporarily in the same category, though it seems hardly worth while in this case. We cannot help thinking that Mr. Wendell lays too much stress upon the minor fact that our literature is not American, whereas the real trouble is that it is not a literature.

To Mr. James the publishing of many books, the daily reviewing, and the rarity of real literary interest are as melancholy signs of the times as the decay of faith is to Mr. Myers. “ The bewildered spirit,” he writes, “ may well ask itself, without speedy answer, What is the function in the life of man of such a periodicity of platitude and irrelevance ? ” But Mr. James’s courage and literary faith hold firm. From his point of view the prospect is most cheering in Paris, where Mr. Myers finds it most depressing; and as in times of unbelief the men who cling to work and to duty are the most inspiring, so there is cheer in the provisional creed, rather breathed than expressed in Mr. James’s work, that the way to get a literature is not to advertise for it as original or American, but to learn to look at things truly, and to write as well as possible. There are ethical as well as literary lessons in his essay on Criticism, a paper which goes very near to the heart of the subject, although its author has felt, obliged to employ part of his space in defending to his audience the very existence of his art.

Mr. James is so perfectly at home in criticism that we almost forget how small a portion of his work lies technically within this province. In reality it all belongs there. As a novelist, his achievement is all in the line of what we may call critical fiction, in which the same processes of analysis, comprehension, and restatement applied in literary criticism to books are brought to bear directly upon life. Mr. James can hardly be called the discoverer of this vein, but he has certainly worked it more consistently and thoroughly than anybody else. To appreciate his success in it we have only to remember how almost invariably true, from a critical point of view, are those scenes and personages in his books which, judged by a purely dramatic standard, are so easily found wanting. His characters talk too uniformly well for dramatic truth ; they are framed, the fine and the vulgar, in a setting of culture which is sometimes too rich for realism. But how exactly the right critical light is thrown upon them, how carefully the type and the variety are selected, what an immersion in observation and the study of life is shown on every page ! The dramatic power, that of bringing real living creatures into a book, must always be counted as the supreme gift in fiction ; but if we demand, with impartial rigor, from every writer the same forms of truth, we shall lose many truths, and get mostly conventionalities.

Mr. James’s literary criticism cannot be considered superior to his novels, for there is more room for originality in working from life, but it is submitted to the same law of literary progress which is to he seen in his novels. His work has always been abundantly clever, but he has constantly turned his cleverness to more and more account. The present volume 5 shows an advance upon Partial Portraits, not in brightness, but in mellowness, and in the power so essential to a critic of finding the true equilibrium of his subject. The essay on Pierre Loti is an admirable example of the qualities which Mr. James has cited in the paper on Criticism as forming the special outfit of the critic. It is an illustration of that interpretation and recasting of the work of another which make criticism analogous to acting as an art. It is at once sympathetic and unexaggerated, and it gives in passing a general picture of the French literature of the day, of its qualities and tendencies, which has a truth and justness of perception not often arrived at in our much writing about that literature. Of Flaubert Mr. James, of course, writes with appreciation, though his optimism is a little severe upon Flaubert’s boisterous melancholy. The paper on the Goncourt Journals is a just and gentlemanly notice of a performance neither gentlemanly nor just. That on Ibsen is probably the most complete and illuminating that has been written about that much discussed and not easily understood dramatist. There are two biographical sketches (we had almost added London as a third, she is so personified) which are among the best things in the book : one, originally printed in The Atlantic, on James Russell Lowell, in which Mr. James shows how possible it is to write with affection and admiration of a man without lending him all the virtues that any other man ever possessed; the other on Fanny Kemble, written con amore and con brio, and giving us a sense as of the whole vivid presence of that great personality. One has something of the pleasure in reading it that there would be in coming across a Landor conversation that had really taken place. In his representation of another lady of great traditions, London, Mr. James seems to us a little perfunctory, as a man almost inevitably must be now and then who writes so much and so well.

Folia Litteraria6 is made up largely of short reviews on points of literary scholarship which have no direct connection, but are strung along on a straight chronological line from the old romances to the nineteenth century, giving the reader the feeling of going through a familiar country on a train that stops only at way stations. They are written in a pleasant tone of light scholarship, and with a warm feeling for poetry. Sometimes the points discussed are tolerably slight, as in an unexplained passage in Comus, where the subject is Miltonreason for having made Echo dwell

“ By slow Meander’s marg-ent green. ”

Mr. Hales sets down as far fetched Keightley’s suggestion that the winding course of the river resembles the repercussion of an echo, and with justice; but his own interpretation, that the Meander was a classic haunt of the swan, the bird of sweet song in the ancient poets, seems, though certainly less absurd, hardly more conclusive. Tennyson, when asked by Mr. Knowles what he meant by the lines in Maud,

“ For her feet have touched the meadow,
And left the daisies rosy,”

made the grave reply, gravely accepted by Mr. Knowles, that a daisy trodden upon would be turned over, bringing the rosy under petals uppermost. The older poets are not on hand gently to extract the poetry from their lines for the benefit of prosaic commentators and friends ; else Milton might have told Mr. Hales that his allusion to Echo meant the song of the swan. But was he not as capable as Leconte de Lisle of bringing in a name for the sake of its sound ? And is not classic association joined here to one of the most beguiling bits of alliteration in literature ? If the verse brings up to the reader the thought of a river in a lovely vale, with now and then an echo flying from hill to hill across its waters, is there any reason why it should have meant something more recondite to the poet ? In the essay on Milton’s Macbeth, showing that Milton had planned a tragedy of Macbeth, and discussing his probable reasons for wishing to enter the lists against Shakespeare, Mr. Hales seems to us to have found a more tangible theme, and executed a careful piece of conjectural criticism.

The volume contains two longer papers, — one on The Last Decade of the Eighteenth Century, a very happily chosen subject, the other on Victorian Literature. Both bear the mark of the lecture in the ground covered and the necessity of constant summarizing, but they are very well arranged, critically sound, and pleasantly written. Folia Litteraria is a book to keep on hand as a collection of extra notes with which to interleave other books rather than one to be taken up and re-read for its own sake. And that, after all, is the best test of essays. They may or may not be classics, but they must prove themselves good comrades.

  1. Science and a Future Life. With Other Essays. By FREDERICK W. H. MYERS. London and New York: Macmillan. 1893.
  2. Essays and Addresses. By the Right Hon. ARTHUR J. BALFOUR, M. P. Edinburgh: David Douglas. 1893.
  3. Essays in Idleness. By AGNES REPPLIER. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.
  4. Stelligeri, and Other Essays concerning America. By BAEKETT WEXDELL. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1893.
  5. Essays in London and Elsewhere. By HENBY JAMES. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1893.
  6. Folia Litteraria. Essays and Notes on English Literature. By W. W. M. M. A., Professor of English Literature in King’s College. New York : Macmillan. 1893.