PEOPLE who are interested in the literary market are accustomed to find one commodity always quoted at about the same figure. The bulls and the bears will be having a rough tussle over fiction, resulting in an artificial fluctuation of prices. Poetry and the minor staples of belleslettres will have their occasional ups, but will hang below par oftener than not. Biography is your real old standby; it has a chance of getting to the top of the market, and will never sink quite to the bottom. We may turn with satisfaction from our present quandaries, our Sin of David, our Son of Royal Langbrith, or our Golden Bowl, to the enjoyment of the biographical “sure things” of the hour; not to be disappointed if we fail to add thereby to our finger-count of masterpieces in this sort. We are inclined to value the rough material of biography more highly than most of the finished products of literary artifice. If we are really to get fresh light thrown upon some worthy human personality and experience, we can afford to be almost indifferent as to whether the man is written about, or writes about himself, whether the given matter takes the form of letters, anecdotes, or ordered chapters. The present season has been extraordinarily fruitful in material of this sort; most of it, as happens, dealing with Englishmen whose work in literature, art, philosophy, or public life, has been done during the half-century just past. These books strongly redirect our attention to that spiritualizing impulse which Mr. WattsDunton has named for us “The Renascence of Wonder;” and which found in Pre-Raphaelitism on the one hand, and the Oxford movement on the other, its most conspicuous manifestations. Recent monographs on Rossetti and Newman have clearly suggested the essence of truth concerning the two preëminent figures of that period; but a good deal of supplementary comment upon them, as well as upon their associates, is sure to be forthcoming during the next few years.
Just now appears a little book about Rossetti, which, as its somewhat crowded title-page suggests, represents one of these biographical after-cullings.1 Not a little of such matter about Rossetti has already been provided by his brother, whose Note doubtless attests the reliability of the present reminiscences. The editor has made too much of his function; the copiousness of his annotation is out of keeping with the sketchy character of the text, and his introduction is turbid and grandiloquent. Perhaps we need to be told who Lilith was, that William Blake was poet, engraver, and painter, and that Tennyson was a poet (1809-92); but we have realty not deserved exposure to details concerning the editor’s relations. The fact that a certain James Shepherd mentioned by Mr. Dunn chanced to marry a sister of Mr. Pedrick fails to interest us in the minutiæ of a doubtless worthy career. Mr. Dunn’s reminiscences are rendered engaging by a certain simplicity and suavity which might not have been looked for in a disciple. He utters no eulogy, he propounds no theory, he has no apparent consciousness of his own part in the life of Rossetti’s" Circle.” He gives a clear human outline to that figure of Rossetti of which the commentators have seemed disposed to make a kind of bogy. Rossetti and his friends were not lackadaisical persons. Mr. Dunn gives, among other anecdotes to the point, the account of a practical joke connected with the filching and recovery of a Nankin plate, — a refreshingly childish performance all round. The most striking incident recorded is of a strange poetic frenzy which came upon the young Swinburne during a thunderstorm: “Whilst he paced up and down the room, pouring out bursts of passionate declamation, faint electric sparks played round the masses of his luxuriant hair.” Another passage, less pleasing if not less suggestive, runs like this: “One day Longfellow, who had not long arrived in London from a tour in Italy, called on Rossetti. He was a grand-looking man, although somewhat short, with a fine silver-white beard, and still a goodly amount of snowwhite hair on his head. He had absolutely no knowledge of painting, and his remarks concerning pictures were not only childish, but indicated an utter indifference to them. Although having just completed his translation of the Paradiso portion of Dante’s ‘Trilogy,’ he seemed quite at a loss to know what Rossetti’s pictures represented.” Such impressions as this, however casual, are, from their obvious sincerity, of assured value to the lover of biographical ana.
A book of the same type, though done on a larger scale, has just appeared with another of the leading Pre-Raphaelites as its subject.2 Lady Burne-Jones does not try for a judicial attitude toward her husband’s life and work, nor is she tempted to make a vague heroic figure of him. She presents him in the wise Boswellian way, mainly by the record of his daily speech and acts. The result is a very clear impression of a personality of great, of surprising power and charm, — of a man, altogether more noble, more gracious, more self-controlled, more consistent in the good sense, than any of his associates, than almost any of his contemporaries. He had a sturdy directness of mind and purpose which protected him from those shoals of dubiety which were barely escaped, or escaped not at all, by a Symonds, a Clough, a FitzGerald, or an Arnold. He had, moreover, an essential serenity of spirit which put him in no danger of that melancholy clouding of hopes, ideals, faiths, which involved the later years of Rossetti and Ruskin and Carlyle.
That two copper candlesticks and a London Directory should be caused to fall with emphasis upon the head of a certain irascible William Morris was the most satisfying of achievements to those roaring blades, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, one of whom was a dab at Limericks (many of which have unfortunately been preserved), and the other an accomplished mimic and caricaturist. Nor was their humor a mere affair of high spirits and horse play. Humor of a better kind they had, though Jenny is Rossetti’s unique and sage expression of it in art, and BurneJones never so expressed it, full of it as his talk and his feeling for life were. It seems that an art like that of the Pre-Raphaelites, or like that of the modern symbolists, depends for its effect upon an established abeyance of humor. Such a convention between artist and audience disposes of a troublesome obstacle to a serious spontaneity: it says, Let us forget that there are parodists and satirists; let us pursue the sublime as if there were no ridiculous. With the aid of such an understanding, men of humor, even lovers of fun, may undertake with some hope of success that pursuit of the grave and naive which is their nearest possible approach to the true sublime of an unplayful and (unless we deliberately overstrain the word humor) unhumorous Milton or Shelley.
It is clear from these memorials that if, as might have happened, Burne-Jones had devoted himself to discursive prose, the product would have been distinctly humorous as well as vigorous and graceful. A fragment of reported dialogue will serve to suggest his philosophy of work and his powers of expression: —
“ S[Dr. Samuel Evans]. But doesn’t your Gnothi seauton mean, among other things, Know your own mind ?
“ E [Burne-Jones]. Notabitofit! Nothing to do with it! Perperam de hoc sentit Sebastianus noster. Nothing of the kind, I repeat. Gnothi seauton means this: Here’s this rickety old macrocosm of a world, my dear, full of maladies and evil humours, purblind, decrepit, paralytic, stumbling and staggering along through a welter of thick mud where she can only just see to take her next step towards nowhere by the ‘wan water’ in the puddles. Poor old thing! What does she know of beauty, or truth, or love, or God ? She has heard tell of such things, but where are they, for her ? — If she did but know! If she did but know! — Listen, you can hear her: ‘ Who will show us any good ? Who will show us any good ? ’
“ S. And then ?
“ E. Why, then, your little, tiny, insignificant, whipper-snapper of a microcosm, he ups and says, says he: ‘ I will! Mother! It’s little enough as I or any man can do for you, but what I can do, by the splendour of God, I will!’ That came to me early, as soon as I could think consecutively. It does n’t come to everybody. But it’s just here that ‘know thyself’ comes in. How are you going to help the poor old world to any advantage, if you don’t know how to make the most of any help you have in you to give ? And this is why I say that Carlyle’s ‘ Work at the task that lies nearest ’ may be atheism. If I had followed that, I should be a parson and what I mean when I say ‘ atheist ’ — that is, a man who, having it in him to do something to help the world, deliberately does less than he might by choosing an uncongenial medium in which to work. If God says ‘You can do this better than that,’ and you choose to do that rather than this, you are an atheist — you don’t believe in the voice of God.
“ S. Suppose we call him a fool instead of an atheist ? It comes to the same thing. It is the fool who saith in his heart, There is no God.
“E. Right. Fool he is and fool he shall be. There are lots of people who have no ‘call’ at all. They don’t count, — they are no more fools than they are wise for not having it. The real fool is the man who hears the call and does n’t obey it. What you have to do is to express yourself — utter yourself, turn out what is in you — on the side of beauty and right and truth, and of course you can’t turn out your best unless you know what your best is. You, for instance, start a rag of a newspaper, — I cover an acre of canvas with a dream of the deathbed of a king who you tell me was never alive, — why ? Simply because for the life of us we can’t hit on any more healing ointment for the maladies of this poor old woman, the world at large.”
It is interesting to note the transition from a vein of burlesque Carlylean pessimism to the energetic colloquial expression of optimism which is BurneJones’s natural speech. He did not deny the existence of adverse conditions, or the difficulty of making headway against them. He had moments of despair over his own work, in one of which he exclaims: “I work daily at Cophetua and his Maid. I torment myself every day — I never learn a bit how to paint. No former work ever helps me — every new picture is a new puzzle, and I lose myself, and am bewildered — and it’s all as it was at the beginning, years ago.” Or again he cries, still more vehemently, “It takes an artist fifty years to learn to do anything, and fifty years to learn what not to do, — and fifty years to sift and find what he simply desires to do, — and three hundred years to do it, and when it is done neither heaven nor earth much needs it nor heeds it. Well,” is his characteristic conclusion, “I’ll peg away; I can do nothingelse, and I would n’t if I could.” And so the burst of petulance is over, and the man buckles down to the work he loves. It is his own powers, not the world, or his art, that he distrusts. He is entirely free from that sense of personal grievance which is so likely to get the mastery over creatures of impulse and sentiment like John Ruskin.
The strongest feeling inspired by the letters of Ruskin 3 is one of pity. Great sensibility, great intellectual activity, great power of expression, — great “parts” of every kind; but a whole somewhat short of greatness; an ineffectual theorist unprovided with that instinct for avoiding the bathos which gave to Shelley’s wings, though beating in the void, an infallible dignity and grace. It is sad to watch the flutterings of this ardent and, so far as impulse could make him so, noble spirit. The correspondence begins, it must be noted, with what we must think Ruskin’s second and decadent period. The literary impulse had pretty well exhausted itself; sadly for him, since his only possible artistic utterance lay through literature; drawing remained for him a fine accomplishment, — by which we mean something not in the most serious sense worth accomplishing.
In the course of these letters Ruskin more than once speaks of Mr. Norton as one of the three or four persons whom he can really call friends (in one letter he includes Lowell among them); and his verbal demonstrations of affection often transcend modern English usage, a fact which would not have interested him, for he was tropical in his loves as in his hates; and whatever he was, apart from achievements, he quite innocently held to be right. One of the reproduced photographs (which appears in somewhat garbled form in the Burne-Jones Memorials) shows Ruskin and Rossetti standing together, arm in arm. There could hardly be a stranger contrast than between these two figures and faces: Ruskin lean, narrow of shoulder and chest, with the eyes of a seer, a hand like a claw clasping his companion’s well-filled sleeve, — and the mouth of a hurt child; Rossetti thickset, broad of brow and jaw, heavy of lid and lip, — the face of a virtuoso or a medium. There is not only grief, but a kind of terror, in Ruskin’s look, fighter though he was. It was easy enough for him to deal with the object in hand, but what of that mysterious invisible foe which surrounds us, whose nature we can only guess at, of whose indomitableness we are sure ? Within, the Ruskin who foamed at the stupidity of other people, who called John Stuart Mill “the root of nearly all immediate evil among us in England . . . an utterly shallow segment of a human creature;” one of that “strange spawn begotten of ill - used money, senseless conductors of the curse of it, flesh-flies with false tongues in the proboscis of them,” — is, in moments of truce, always wondering “whether in general we are getting on, and if so, where we are going to; whether it is worth while to ascertain any of these things.” The best shift he can make at this stage of his disintegration is to seek relief from one unsatisfied activity in another: “I am working at geology, at Greek — weakly—patiently — caring for neither; trying to learn to write, and hold my pen properly — reading comparative anatomy, and gathering molluscs, with disgust.” Or, in other moods, he finds the resource of a humorous nature: “I find Penguins at present the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous; one can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin.”
Ruskin had, with all his complaints, a scorn of fruitless complaining which more than once connected itself with Carlyle. “What in my own personal way I chiefly regret and wonder at in him,” he writes, after reading the Carlyle-Emerson correspondence, “ is the perception in all nature of nothing between the stars and his stomach, — his going, for instance, into North Wales for two months, and noting absolutely no Cambrian thing or event, but only increase of Carlylean bile.” But he istolerantof Froude’s stillvexed revelations, and totally disagrees with Mr. Norton “about the wife letters being sacred.” Mr. Norton has held to his principles in dealing with Ruskin’s own letters to himself. “In my judgment,” he says in his preface, “Ruskin himself published, or permitted to be published, far too many of his letters, — some of them, as it seemed to me, such as should never have been printed. . . . I have not printed all the letters which Ruskin wrote to me. In spite of the poets, in spite of modern usage, in spite of Ruskin’s own example, I hold with those who believe that there are sanctities in love and life to be kept in privacy inviolate.” The process of choice must have been difficult, and we may wonder in turning over the resulting pages what Ruskin’s confidences would have been if these are his reservations.
“ Although in the inner circle of English letters,” says Mr. Douglas, in introducing his book on Mr. Watts-Dunton,4 “this study of a living writer will need no apology, it maybe well to explain for the general reader the reasons which moved me to undertake it.” Feeling duly chagrined at our failure to belong to the inner, or outer, circle of English letters, we listen to various reasons why we should hear about Mr. Watts - Dunton: the most impressive of which is that Mr. Swinburne considers him “the first critic of our time, perhaps the largest-minded and surestsighted of any age.” The exhibits which follow are of far more importance than the accompanying commentary. The rôle of exhibitor, under the circumstances, is one to which Mr. Douglas is obviously unequal. His excellent bad taste necessarily reflects somewhat upon the otherwise admirable person who has voluntarily submitted himself to such usage. For a literary executor a ghost might deny responsibility, but hardly a man alive. It is only when Mr. Douglas absents himself that we succeed in feeling at ease in his presence. Yet he is a gentleman of surprising integrity. “ Mr. Watts-Dunton,” he admits, “when I told him that I was going to write this book, urged me to moderate my praise and to call into action the critical power that he was good enough to say that I possessed, . . . but the courage of my opinions I will exercise so long as I write at all. The ‘newspaper cynics,’ that once were and perhaps still are strong, I have always defied, and always will defy. I am glad to see that there is one point of likeness between us of the younger generation and the great one to which Mr. Watts-Dunton and his illustrious friends belong. We are not afraid, and we are not ashamed of being enthusiastic. This also, I hope, will be a note of the twentieth century.” Never did American colonel whistle his courage up more shrilly.
Mr. Watts-Dunton is, we know, the chief survivor and interpreter of the PreRaphaelite group. As “friend of poets,” though as nothing else, he would have a sure place in the literary annals of his period. To him, according to Mr. Douglas, was due whatever comfort Rossetti had in his later years, and whatever work he did. Morris owed much to his friendship, and for thirty years he has been the intimate and house-mate of Swinburne. His critical writing in the encyclopædias and the Athenœum has been of steady influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Special pleader in a way he has been, the champion of modern romanticism; it is a pity that his panegyrist should have made catch-words of such effective phrases as “the Renascence of Wonder,”and “Natura Benigna.” The book does at least succeed in presenting the more important aspects of Mr. Watts-Dunton’s periodical criticism, a criticism which the author has refused to rescue from its anonymous dispersion among old files of the Athenœum and elsewhere. Some day it will be collected and published, let us hope without any such gloss as Mr. Douglas would be likely to furnish.
Like Ruskin, Herbert Spencer systematically overworked, and paid the penalty of nervous collapse, which was paid by so many contemporaries. Otherwise, two men could hardly have been more different. Whether from superiority or inferiority of imagination, Spencer seems to have been incapable of being seriously troubled or perplexed. He dwelt upon a cool intellectual eminence; he was sufficient for whatever task presented, he was sufficient unto himself. To the supplementary order of biographical material belongs a little book about him, containing two essays and a chapter of reminiscences.5 The first essay, on “Spencer’s Contribution to the Concept of Evolution,” sketches the history of the evolutionary theory, and the process by which Spencer, long before the Origin of Species, came to the adoption of a theory of evolution, and, presently, of a complementary theory of dissolution; and so was brought suddenly upon “the truth that integration is a primary process and differentiation a secondary process.” Eventually, Professor Royce fails to find in the Spencerian concept a road to the solution of all problems connected with evolution. It “does not determine the relations of the essential processes of evolution to one another, does not define their inner unity, and does not enable us to conceive a series of types of evolutionary processes in orderly relations to one another.” It is rather a piece of pioneering work, done in a right spirit and toward a right end. The essay on “Spencer’s Educational Theories” suggests some causes of the philosopher’s limitations in attacking concrete problems. The Autobiography furnishes data from which Professor Royce shows that Spencer’s educational theories were based upon the assumption that all children should be trained as he chanced to be trained. “He was of his own kind a most wonderful example,” says the critic. “But I should be sorry if all men were Spencers.”
Mr. Collier’s Reminiscences put before us a figure of dignity and amenity, if not quite of charm; a healthy life, well rounded with various activities. Spencer was a genial diner-out, and more dependent for recreation upon his billiards or his tennis than upon any books ever written; facts which, no doubt, go far toward accounting for the placidity of his mental processes and the precision of his results.
In the preface to his Reminiscences, published some five years ago, Justin McCarthy wrote, “One reason why I have not attempted an autobiography is that my life, in its own course, has been uneventful, and that I have no story to tell about it which could have any claim on public interest.” These Reminiscences proved to contain much autobiographical material, somewhat to the impoverishment, perhaps, of the story which he now has to tell.6 It may stand, however, as a record sufficiently varied and full of incident to have a sure claim on public interest. It would rank with such a narrative as Mr. Riis’s, rather than with literary autobiographies, or with intellectual documents like Spencer’s account. Like Mr. Riis, his main interest has been in public service, and he writes, like him, with honesty, an engaging complacency, an unaffected good-humor, and a total lack of distinction in manner. Mr. McCarthy has been most useful to his time, but it would be idle to pretend that he has been useful to literature. No book of his is likely to outlive him ten years. But to approach the end of life in a mood of unfailing cheerfulness and hopefulness may fall to persons of practical activity, as well as to persons of purely intellectual power, oftener than to seers and prophets. Spencer and Justin McCarthy have had a success in common which was denied Rossetti, and Ruskin, and Carlyle.
- Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and His Circle. By the late HENRY TREFFRY DUNN. Edited and Annotated by GALE PEDRICK. With a Prefatory Note by WILLIAM MICHAEL ROSSETTI. New York : James Pott & Co. 1904.↩
- Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, By G. B - J. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1904.↩
- Letters of John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton. In two Volumes. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.↩
- Theodore Watts-Dunton : Poet, Novelist, Critic. By JAMES DOUGLAS. New York: John Lane. 1904.↩
- Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review. By JOSIAH ROYCE. Together with a Chapter of Personal Reminiscences by JAMES ComiER. New York : Fox, Duffield & Co. 1904.↩
- An Irishman’s Story. By JUSTIN MCCARTHY. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1904.↩