The Letters of Thomas Edward Brown

“ THERE is an ethos in FitzGerald’s letters which is so exquisitely idyllic as to be almost heavenly. He takes you with him, exactly accommodating his pace to yours, walks through meadows so tranquil, and yet abounding in the most delicate surprises. And these surprises seem so familiar, just as if they had originated with yourself. What delicious blending! ”

These lines about FitzGerald, taken from one of the letters of Thomas Edward Brown, have a singular appositeness when applied to “ T. E. B.” himself. A shy scholar, with plenty of Scotch fury in his heart, passionately attached to his native Manx soil, to his friends and his books, he lived a life as isolated and unspoiled as FitzGerald’s, and now seems likely to win something of the same posthumous fame.

Born in 1830 at Douglas, Isle of Man, where his father held the living of St. Matthew’s, Brown went to Christ Church, Oxford. He won a doublefirst, but his position as a servitor was painful. He was made Fellow of Oriel in 1854. In 1857 he married his cousin, and became head master of the Crypt school, Gloucester, where W. E. Henley was one of his pupils. He afterward removed to Clifton College, but teaching was apparently never very congenial to him, although he was loved and admired by his boys. In 1892 he went back to the Isle of Man, and spent the last five years of his life as a clergyman in charge of two parishes. The Archdeaconry of Man was offered to him; but he preferred freedom to attend Methodist chapels and to smoke a pipe in a public house if he pleased. He printed five slender volumes of verse, much of it in Manx dialect; and in these things, together with his music, his long walks, and the occasional society of a friend, was the life of his rare spirit.

Brown’s published letters begin with a description of Jowett’s preaching in 1851, and close with a hasty note written three days before his death in 1897. There are but three letters to represent a space of twenty years in his early manhood, and this gap provokes curiosity as to the course of his spiritual development. He conquered his volcanic temperament slowly, one would hazard, and learned sweetness from much bitter struggle. Like many a Celt, he was naturally endowed with an excess of emotion, — “aborn sobber,” he whimsically said ; and the perpetual warfare of this Celtic extravagance with his classicism, and with the decorous walk and conversation expected from a British schoolmaster and clergyman, is amusing and very human.

His feeling for nature was a passion of the sort that is rarer than it seems, in these days of pocket kodaks and little books about birds and grasshoppers. His eye for details was exquisite, but the whole enchanting spectacle of sea and shore hushed him now and again into a sort of tranquil rapture. “ Oh, let us dream ! ” he cries, as he describes the walk to Portishead; “a chance word now and then, a cowslip, a violet; but mainly the all but continuous dream.” On the Quantocks he felt the fairies all around him. “ ' There’s odds o’ fairies — hierarchies— S. T. C. a supreme hierarch ; look at his face ; think of meeting him at midnight between Stowey and Alfoxden, like a great white owl, soft and plumy, with eyes of flame ! ”

This magic-picture of Coleridge is a reminder that Brown’s letters are full of curiously vivid portraits of men of letters. Of course he knew his classics ; indeed, to read his letters with full appreciation, one needs a bit of Greek and Latin and of three or four modern languages besides. He believed in classical training, with a queer combination of stubborn schoolmaster logic and mystical religious faith. He writes of a proposal to make Greek optional for boys : —

“ Yes, you would fill your school to overflowing, of course you would, so long as other places did not abandon the old lines. But it would be detestable treachery to the cause of education, of humanity. To me the learning of any blessed thing is a matter of little moment. Greek is not learned by nineteen - twentieths of our Public School boys. But it is a baptism into a cult, a faith, not more irrational than other faiths or cults ; the baptism of a regeneration which releases us from I know not what original sin. And if a man does not see that, he is a fool, such a fool that I should n’t wonder if he gravely asked me to explain what I meant by original sin in such a connection.”

His own commerce with Greek and Roman masterpieces was vital. “ Since M. left I have been regaling myself with the Eclogues and a book of Herodotus. The finished art of the former, and the naïveté, not above the suspicion of irony and positive poking fun, which seams the latter, are an endless joy.” Of the Ars Poetica he exclaims: “ I would steep every one, I would steep myself, in that supreme bath of criticism. I can hardly think of it and its early impression on me without tears.”

But his mind was equally open — doubtless he would have said because of that classical training open — to the charm and power of the great mediævals and moderns: “The Orlando Furioso — have you read it ? It is just now my constant companion. What a brilliant bird-of-paradise sort of creature it is ! I think the hard enamel of this Italian reprobate pleases me better than Spenser with his soft velvet carpet, on which you walk ankle-deep in the moss of yielding allegory.” Or again : “ I think Dante is monotonous, but what a monotone ! He drowns you in a dream, and you never want to wake.”

Brown was one of the Hugonians, absolutely certain that there has been no poet like Hugo since Shakespeare. His fondness for Daudet’s short stories was lyrical in its fervor, and no critic has written more penetrating sentences about Flaubert and de Maupassant. That he was one of Sir Walter’s men need scarcely be said. “Fancy dying,” he writes, “ without having read The Fortunes of Nigel; ‘ going into the presence of your maker,’ and being compelled to such a confession! ”

His literary antipathies, like his sympathies, are gayly and tersely voiced, as he passes from Euripides to Trilby, —he liked them both, — and from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which he did not like at all, to The Manxman, which he was too loyal to his native soil and his friend Hall Caine not to admire mightily. He did not feel quite sure of Mr. Kipling, although he knew his own mind about Stevenson.

“ Kipling seems a versatile being, without a pivot — magnificent sky-rocket of a genius. There is nothing he can’t do, but I question whether he will ever do anything really great. He is at his second wind, and one gets anxious about his staying power. Weir of Hermiston I take to be the most consummate thing that has been written for many years. Don’t you agree with me ? That woman — not Mrs. Weir, though she is marvelously good, but the humble relative who occupies the place of chief and confidential servant! No one but a Scot can enter into this character. That I am able so thoroughly to feel it, I consider the strongest proof of my Scottish origin. Such a woman! And yet they said Stevenson could n’t draw a woman. And the passion of love — yes, love ; yes, passion — the positive quasi-sexual (or shall I drop the quasi ?) longing for the young Hermiston. Good God! What depth ! what truth ! what purity ! what nobility! If the century runs out upon this final chord, what more do I want ? Let me die with the sough of it in my ears. It is enough : nunc dimittis, Domine. You will go on to other joys: the coming century will bring them to you. But to me — well, well, all right. In heaven I will bless you, Louis Stevenson.”

Complete Brownists, who are delighted that the Messrs. Macmillan have recently published “ T. E. B.’s ” collected poems in their well-known uniform edition of the poets, will find in these letters confirmation of their belief in the rare, spontaneous quality of the Manxman’s genius. By far the greater number of American readers have never heard his name. For them the letters will be the introduction to a new friend, whose swiftly changing moods and racy eccentricities of speech give charm to a nature essentially sane, deep-rooted in wholesome Mother Earth, and unvexed by the spiritual perplexities of the passing hour.

  1. 2Letters of Thomas Edward Brown. Edited, with an Introductory Memoir, by SIDNEY T. IRWIN. In two volumes. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1900.