The Close of the Victorian Epoch

THE deaths of Herbert Spencer and Philip James Bailey, following on those of Lord Houghton, Thomas Hughes, and Aubrey de Vere, have taken away the last of the figures who peculiarly represented, for Americans at least, the Victorian literary epoch. The first two among these owed their earliest really enthusiastic readers to this country, while Hughes made himself half American, first by his sympathies, and then by his colonial experiments. Aubrey de Vere published poems in our magazines, and Lord Houghton opened his heart and home to all of us, — as he did, indeed, to all the outer world. Of these authors and some of their compeers, I propose to set down a few notes of remembrance.

The death of Herbert Spencer (1820— 1903) seemed in a manner to shift men’s thoughts for a moment to an earlier generation, not so much because of his advanced years, as because he seemed to have made his definitive and crowning contribution to human thought more than thirty years ago, — perhaps in his Principles of Psychology in 1872,—and to have flung about his detached seeds of thought ever since, to take root widely, indeed, yet in an essentially fragmentary way. Spread far over men’s minds, their scattered harvest has often concealed and even obstructed the local product, just as our Southern battlefields are now covered with blossoming peach trees, which have sprung from the peach stones that the Union soldiers threw away. Seeming in one point of view a triumph, this result, nevertheless, contrasts greatly with the impression produced by the recently published letters of Darwin, where every letter suggests some inquiry still pending or the germ of some still unexplored harvest for the future. This helps us to understand why it is that Spencer’s fame still remains the more insular of the two. Neither of them wrote, of course, with French terseness, or paid that penalty of shallowness to which French intellect is so often limited. Neither Darwin nor Spencer can be said to have imagination or humor; but the charm of an absolutely ingenuous nature is always felt in Darwin, whereas in Spencer, at his best, there is an atmosphere which, if not self-assertion, at least bears kindred to it. Even in the collection and combination of details, as made by these two, there is a difference. Darwin is methodical, connected, and above all things moderate and guarded; while Spencer’s mind often seems a vast landing - net thrown out for the gathering of every fact which he desires to find, however scanty the harvest. He accounts the hearsay of a single traveler to be more than equivalent, if it tends in his own favorite direction, to the most elaborate tissue of evidence that inclines the other way.

Spencer had what Talleyrand once defined as “the weakness of omniscience,” giving unflinchingly his opinions on banking, on dancing, or on astronomy; and, although he went through life constantly widening his allusions and interests, while Darwin modestly lamented the steady narrowing of his own, yet it is hard to see how any person brought in contact with both, either personally or through reading, can help finding in Darwin, not only the sweeter and humbler, but the richer and more lasting, nature of the two. Writing at once for trained students and for the liberal public, Spencer reached the latter easily, and the former with less marked success. His generalizations were often vague, and in a manner anticipatory; he relied on evidence yet to come in, and while he thus popularized in a manner irresistible, he did not so surely carry with him the profoundest minds. His criticisms of other authors were often superficial and shallow, as in the case of Kant and Hamilton; and had not, in short, the profound and self - controlled patience of Darwin. This being true of Spencer even as a home - keeping student, it became especially visible in his one noticeable experience as a traveler, and those present at his farewell dinner in New York still recall vividly the amusing effect produced by his cautioning his hearers against baldness as an outcome of the eager American life, whereas those who sat with him at the banquet seemed like an assemblage of highly bewigged men compared with the notoriously baldheaded congregation of English barristers to be seen every Sunday at the Temple Church in London.

The recognized host of literary Americans in London, during the latter half of the last century, — after the death of Samuel Rogers in 1855,—was unquestionably the late Lord Houghton (180985) who, however, bore his original name of Milnes until 1863. Never was a phrase better employed in the mere title of a book than that given by his biographer, Sir Wemyss Reid, to the work entitled Life, Letters and, Friendships of R. M. Milnes ; for his friendships were as lasting as his life, and almost as numerous as his letters. Responding to all introductions with more than even the accustomed London promptness, Lord Houghton was often the first to call upon any well-accredited American of literary pursuits arriving in London, to follow him up with invitations, and, if necessary, to send him home at last with formal resolutions of regard, either moved or seconded by Lord Houghton. Better still, he was loyal to this nation itself in its day of anguish, when even Gladstone had failed it. Indeed, he wrote to me, when I sent him two volumes of memoirs of Harvard students who had died in the Union army, that they were men whom “Europe has learned to honor and would do well to imitate.” Not striking in appearance, he was a man of more than English range of social culture; and he puts on record somewhere his difficulty in finding half-a-dozen men in London besides himself who could be invited to a dinner-party to meet Frenchmen who spoke no English. His Life of Keats still remains an admirable and a very difficult piece of work; and his sketch of Landor in Monographs certainly gives us the best delineation of that extraordinary man, unsurpassed even by that remarkable account of his later life in James’s William Wetmore Story and his Friends. No one enjoyed more than Lord Houghton the Florentine legend that Landor had, one day, after an imperfect dinner, thrown the cook out of the window into his violet bed; and, while the man was writhing with a broken limb, ejaculated, “Good God, I forgot the violets!” Another remark attributed to Landor, who liked to dine alone, when he said that a spider at least was “a gentleman, for he ate his fly in secret,” was by no means to be applied to the hospitable soul of Lord Houghton.

Lord Beaconsfield has described Lord Houghton, under the name of Mr. Vavasour, as one who liked to know everybody who was known, and to see everything which ought to be seen. “ There was not,” he says, “a congregation of sages and philosophers in any part of Europe which he did not attend as a brother. . . . He was everywhere and at everything; he had gone down in a divingbell and gone up in a balloon.” Carlyle called him the “President of the Heavenand-Hell-Amalgamation Company,” and Matthew Arnold wrote of him to his mother, during the Chartist Riots of 1848, that Milnes refused to be sworn in as a special constable, in order that he might be free to assume the post of President of the Republic at a moment’s notice. He had known more authors of all nations than any Englishman of his time, probably ; yet his comments on them, especially in later time, sometimes suggested the reply of Samuel Rogers to some one who described the members of a distinguished literary fraternity as being like brothers: “I have heard they were not getting on well together, but did not know that it was quite so bad as that.” I remember, too, Lord Houghton’s comment when I described a brief interview with Tennyson, how he frankly said of his Cambridge companion and lifelong friend, “Tennyson likes unmixed flattery.” The same limitations affected all his criticism; and while vindicating Keats in his Life, Milnes could not help hinting that the Lake poets marred their “access to future fame” by “ literary conceit,” thus suggesting toward the poetry of others the same injustice which threatens his own. Yet the present writer, at least, who learned Milnes’s poems by heart in youth, and found in Sister Sorrow and Beneath an Indian Palm something second only to Tennyson, must still retain love for the poet, as well as gratitude to the ever kindly host.

Next to Lord Houghton, perhaps, in cheery cordiality to Americans, was the late Aubrey de Vere (1814-1902), whose smallness of size and poetic face seem to substitute him in place of Tom Moore as the typical representative of the Irish poetic spirit. His name alone seemed to impair the genuineness of this Irish quality, but it was borne before him by his father, Sir Aubrey de Vere, Bart., of Curragh Chase, County Limerick; the family name having been originally Hunt, but having been changed by royal license many years ago to the family name of the old earls of Oxford, a race with whom there was a remote connection. The name of the later poet of this family — for the father also had published poems — was well known in America, where he had at several times contributed to the Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals; and also it was gratefully known for that sympathy in our national cause which he had freely expressed in two sonnets of high grade, the one called the Principle, and the other Principle a Power, or Logic a History. He had already written, before the Civil War, two sonnets touching on the same theme and addressed to Professor Charles Eliot Norton; and throughout all these poems he had recognized the abolition of slavery as the great need of our nation. In yet later verse, he had become more and more thoroughly identified with the revival in Irish tradition, and, like most of his fellow bards, had sung of Queen Meave, of the sons of Usnach, and of the Children of Lir. Himself latterly a Catholic, he needed but little effort to speak for Ireland’s heroic age, as he himself loved to call it.

Sir Leslie Stephen tells us that de Vere was one of the most delightful of men, and he speaks truly; but when he goes farther and informs us that he himself has never read a line of his charming friend’s poetry, it is uncertain whether he is casting doubt upon this friend’s intellectual claims or his own. Many of de Vere’s minor verses have in them a touch amounting almost to genius; and perhaps no great national sorrow was ever more nobly preserved in song than was accomplished in the Hymn in Time of Famine, in Ireland. These verses appeared first in a magazine, anonymously, and were at once attributed to Tennyson, nor could Tennyson have surpassed them. They were of themselves sufficient, like Kipling’s Recessional, to make a reputation; and that Sir Leslie never took the pains to read them shows that he could not safely have risked the reputation of his Dictionary of National Biography on his own unguided judgment. All else that is claimed by him for Aubrey de Vere was absolutely true, and we may add that this poet had all the charm of the Irish temperament, combined with a sweetness and gentleness not always identified with that heroic island, while all its pathos and sorrow were incarnated in him. Supposing England and Ireland to have become separate nations, it would have been by no fighting on his part, although he would have accepted the result; and many an English heart, warm beneath its seeming coldness, would have looked from the windows of the Athenæum Club, vainly hoping for his return at the accustomed season. That famous club must indeed seem as essentially transformed by not meeting him in the reading-room as by discovering that Herbert Spencer is no longer knocking billiard balls about in the basement.

De Vere’s published recollections, although somewhat too diffuse, especially in dealing with his “submission” to the Catholic Church, — an event which did not occur until he was nearly forty, — are yet full of delightful pictures of home life, with many touches of that racy Irish humor which was a part of his inheritance. In the narrative are intermingled some anecdotes of Wordsworth, who was his father’s literary model; and he tells an amusing story connected with the ruins of Kilchurn Castle in Scotland, to which Wordsworth addressed an early and now forgotten poem. It seems that, while still a boy, de Vere was requested to read from Wordsworth to two ladies, his mother’s friends, and he began at this poem, reading in a solemn voice: —

“ Skeleton of unfleshed humanity,”

on which one of the two ladies, who was, he says, certainly as thin as a skeleton, leaped up and said, “Well, I am the thinnest woman in Ireland, but I cannot approve of personal remarks.” Another good story of his telling is that of a groom in Dublin Castle, who was required to attend a Protestant service at the opening of court, in which the chaplain prayed that all the lords of the council might always hang together “in accord and concord.” At which poor Paddy forgot where he was, and exclaimed at his loudest, “ Oh, then, if I could see them hanging together in any cord, ’t is myself would be satisfied!”

Thomas Hughes (1823-96), too, is gone, — Tom Hughes would still seem the more accustomed name, — one of the many men who illustrate the somewhat painful truth that the heights of philanthropy and self-devotion do not yield so sure a fame as a spark of genius, however wayward it may be. When he came to this country in 1870, he was justly received as the one man who, more than any other, had served as the main tie between Americans and Englishmen at the darkest hour of civil war. His single testimony in his parting address convinced America, for the first time, that the English antagonism which cut so deeply during the war was really the antagonism of a minority, and that the vast mass of Englishmen were on our side. More than any other witness, he convinced us, moreover, that war between America and England under any conceivable circumstances would be essentially a civil war, and that we never again should see such a war between Englishspeaking men. Perhaps no address made on this side the Atlantic during, or immediately after, our Civil War afforded such a triumph of international influence as that made by him at Music Hall in Boston on October 11, 1870, and printed in his Vacation Rambles. His immediate service to us in England during the war itself had certainly prepared the way for this, and doubtless his whole American prestige dated back to the period when his Tom Brown’s School Days at Rugby found its way to all boyish hearts. In 1880, it will be remembered, he was here for the inspection of certain colonies which he had founded for young Englishmen of the more educated class, at Rugby, Tennessee. Personally, I met him several times in England in a very pleasant way, but had seen him first in this country, when I exerted a doubtful influence over his personal comfort by guiding him to Spouting Rock in Newport just before an inhospitable wave came up “like a huge whale,” as he says in his printed diary, deluging him completely, while sparing me. “The sight,” he says, “was superb, and well worth the payment on an unstarched coat and waistcoat.”

Philip James Bailey (1816-1902) not only achieved the distinction of being rarely mentioned, save in connection with a single book of his authorship, but of being actually dismissed from life nearly fifty years before his real departure, by the highest historic authority, the Konversations-Lexikon of Brockhaus, where he who runs may read that Bailey died in 1858. Festus had, indeed, the strange experience of being largely written before its author was twenty years old, — of being compared on its first appearance to the works of Homer, of Virgil, and of Goethe, — of having passed through eleven or more editions in England and thirty or more in America, growing bulkier and heavier as it went on, —— and of being at last practically forgotten, with its author. The book itself undoubtedly owed something of its success to the mood of the public mind at the time of its first appearance. It was printed in the transcendental period; it was long-winded, sometimes imitative, often feeble, and yet rising in single passages into strong lines and regal phrases, suggestive, at least, of Marlowe and of Keats. The young poet’s very conception of literature is on its stateliest side:—

Homer is gone : and where is Jove, and where
The rival cities seven ? His song outlives
Time, tower and god — all that then was, save Heaven.

Some of his lines have had the highest compliment paid them by drifting into the vast sea of miscellaneous literature, and reappearing, from time to time, assigned to any one of a dozen different authors, as in case of that fine passage, —

Trifles like these make up the present time ;
The Iliad and the Pyramids, the past.

It is testified by all who recall the period of the first appearance of Festus that the book distinctly tended to the training of ardent and even heroic souls; and if the author himself belonged to that class, he certainly could not have felt, at eightysix, that he had lived in vain.

The death of Alexander J. Ellis (181490) took away one of those men of ready and versatile powers who seem more American than English in temperament; and he was one who perhaps strengthened this impression by his faithful allegiance to our fellow countryman, Mr. Conway, whose Sunday services he attended in London. After distinguishing himself successively in the higher mathematics, the theory of music, horse - taming, and phonology, — having, indeed, been a fellow laborer with Sir Isaac Pitman in forming the phonetic alphabet,—he was when I knew him the president of the Philological Society, and one of the most agreeable of companions. While frankly critical of so-called Americanisms in conversation, — declaring, for instance, that he had rarely met an American who habitually pronounced the name of his own country correctly, inasmuch as they almost all said Ame’ica, — he was as yet by no means narrow or autocratic. When I asked him, for example, how he pronounced the word “either,”—that is, ēther or īther, — he laughed and said that it made no difference, but that he sometimes said it in the one way, sometimes in the other. Upon this his daughter, a lively maiden, broke in merrily and said, “Oh, but I think that such a useful word! It reveals a person’s age by the way he pronounces it. Everybody in England under forty says ‘e-ther,’ and every one over forty says ‘i-ther.’ So surely as I hear a man say i-ther, I know he is above forty, no matter what he pretends.” Then we talked of Americanisms, and Mrs. Ellis said that it had always seemed odd to her — since Americans were so cordial and sociable and the English were justly regarded as stiff — that it should, nevertheless, be Americans who addressed every newcomer as stranger, “or strahnger,” she added, when English people would more naturally say “My friend.” When I defended my fellow countrymen against the charge, and described the offending epithet as belonging to the newer and more unsettled parts of the land, she said with surprise that she had always been told that we addressed every new acquaintance with “Well, strahnger, I guess.” I got the advantage of her a little, however, when we came to talk of railway travel. She inquired if it was true, as she had been told, that American railway conductors often stopped the trains in order to drive stray cattle off the track. I did not feel called upon to tell her that I had seen this done in my childhood, when the first railways were built, within a dozen miles of Boston, but I explained that it might still be done, sometimes, in the great farming and grazing regions of the country, were it not that we had a contrivance in the shape of a frame built out in front of the locomotive to guard against that danger. This valuable invention, I told her, was known as a “ cowcatcher.” She listened with deep interest, and then asked with some solicitude, “But is it not rather dangerous for the boy?” and I asked in some bewilderment, “What boy?” “Why,” she answered, “the boy of whom you spoke, the cow-catcher!”

The death of Doctor Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford (1817-93),— whom it was the proper etiquette to address as “Master,”—recalls associations dear to American students because of his marvelous translation of Plato, with others, only less admirable, of Aristotle’s Politics, and of Thucydides. To me, personally, it also brings back the happy Commemoration Day at Oxford in 1878, when I sat at his dinner-table with the present Duke of Devonshire, Sir James Stephen, and others, and heard that singular mixture of sermonizing and sharp retort which is so well preserved in the brilliant pages of Mallock’s New Republic. He appears there, it may be remembered, as “Dr. Jenkinson,” and preaches an imaginary sermon which, it is said, annoyed the subject of the parody very much. Many are the stories yet told at Oxford of his abrupt and formidable wit. On one occasion, at one of his own dinnerparties, when the ladies had retired and a guest began at once upon that vein of indecent talk which is, perhaps, less infrequent among educated men in England than in America, or is at least more easily tolerated there, Doctor Jowett is said to have looked sharply toward the offender, and to have said with a decisive politeness, “Shall we continue this conversation in the drawing-room?” He then rose from his chair, the guests all, of course, following, by which measure the offender was, so to speak, annihilated without discourtesy. They tell also, at Balliol, of a dinner at Doctor Jowett’s table, when the talk ran upon the comparative gifts of two Balliol men who had been made respectively a judge and a bishop. Professor Henry Smith, famous in his day for his brilliancy, pronounced the bishop to be the greater man of the two for this reason: “A judge, at the most, can only say ‘You be hanged,’ whereas a bishop can say ‘You be damned.’” “Yes,” said Doctor Jowett, “but if the judge says ‘You be hanged,’ you are hanged.”

London seemed to me permanently impoverished, when I went there last, by the death of one of its most accomplished and most delightful women, Lady Pollock, mother of the present Sir Frederick Pollock, who has lately visited us in America, and also of Walter Herries Pollock, former editor of the Saturday Review. With the latter, she published A Cast of the Dice under the pen name of ” Julian Waters ” in 1872, and Little People and Other Tales in 1874; and ten years later she published from her own pen Macready as I knew Him . This is perhaps the most admirable sketch ever written of a great actor, and suggests more of ripe thought and observation about the dramatic profession than any book I have ever read. Of the stage itself she was an expert critic, being as much at home in Paris as in London, and being sometimes expressly summoned across the Channel by members of the Théâtre Français to see the preliminary rehearsal of some new play. Her husband, the second Sir Frederick, — the present baronet being the third, — was a most agreeable man, of tall and distinguished appearance and varied cultivation. It was at his house that I first had the pleasure of meeting two attractive guests, Mr. Venable, then well known as a writer for his annual summary of events in the London Times, and Mr. Newton of the British Museum. The former read aloud, I remember, some of the brilliant Leading Cases of the present Sir Frederick Pollock, a book of satirical imitations of leading poets; and I have always associated Mr. Newton with a remark which any person largely conversant with great libraries can understand, when he said that on Sundays, when he went into the British Museum and wandered about among the empty halls, he found himself absolutely hating books.

There still remain to be mentioned two men, the one Scotch, and the other what may be called English-American, whom I met at a London dinner-table under rather odd circumstances, nearly thirty years ago. It was at the house of an eminent American journalist then residing in London, an old acquaintance, who had done me the kindness to invite a few friends to meet me at dinner. This being the case, I was placed at table, according to custom, on the right of the hostess, and saw on her left a very tall, strongly built man of intelligent and good-natured look, but with an overpowering voice, soon bearing down on all others with hearty vehemence and jocund anecdote. He seemed like one who might consort with a hundred wandering gypsies, and lord it over them all. On my side of the table sat, with one lady between us, a man much younger and widely different in appearance, having the look of a small and rather insignificant Jewish salesman. He was, as my hostess explained to me, a young Scotch journalist who had won quite a reputation by a novel called A Daughter of Heth. His name, then wholly new to me, was William Black (184198), while the other and more stalwart neighbor was Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903), of whom I knew something by his earlier writings. As for Black, I had heard of his book, but had not read it, and I remember that, after the ladies had withdrawn, I moved my chair so as to come nearer to him, and made some attempt at starting a conversation, which altogether failed, as his attention still clung, not unnaturally but exclusively, to Leland, who went on telling uproarious stories. Abandoning my effort at last, I turned to some one else, and after a while we returned to the drawing-room. It was getting late, and I had promised to take home in my carriage a daughter of Horace Greeley, also a guest; and while talking with our host about this plan, Mr. Black rather surprised me by coming up and proposing quite eagerly that our host and myself should go with him to his club and finish the evening. This the former declined, because he could not leave his guests, and I, because of my escort duty toward the young lady. I was a little amazed at this rather tardy attention on Mr. Black’s part, after my previous ill success in winning his ear; but it was soon necessary to take leave, with my young companion, who, as soon as the carriage door was shut, burst into a merry laugh and said, “I have had such an odd time with that Mr. Black.” It seems that he had sat down beside her on our return to the drawing-room, and had remarked to her that she, being an American, was probably acquainted with all the persons present. She replied that, on the contrary, she knew very few of them. “Then I can tell you,” he said, “ who some of them are. That,” he said, “is an American author whom we are invited here to meet,” and he pointed to Mr. Leland. “ No, it is not,” she said. “You are entirely mistaken. I know the gentleman of whom you speak very well, and that is an entirely different man, Mr. Leland.” The key was now given to the young author’s sudden cordiality toward a stranger. But what surprised me was that he should have looked on the left side of the lady of the house, not on the right, to find the guest for whom the dinner was given. It appears from his recent memoirs, however, that although Black had then spent half-adozen years in London, he had had at first but little experience in its social life, and may have needed elementary instructions in its ways almost as much as I myself did, although I was doubtless visiting the Old World, as my friend Madame Th. Bentzon has suggested, somewhat in the inexperienced capacity of Voltaire’s Huron Indian.