PEOPLE of a practical and staving disposition have a right to ignore, and even to resent, the advances of your casual literary enthusiast. There is no reason why a private hobby should be allowed to get to be a public nuisance. Let the man dog’s-ear his minor poets, by all means; that is a harmless form of amusement, like playing the flute or collecting post-agestamps. But in the name of common sense let him keep his little games to himself. We have “troubles of our own;” we know, perhaps, the difference between stocks and bonds, and are more or less applauded by the neighbors for our local applications to the pianola of evenings. What do we owe to the writing person ? Why should we be expected to be interested in his interest in an always obscure book or a long-forgotten author ? No good excuse can be offered for the following observations on Peacock. No accident of the calendar affords that momentary reanimation of interest which our conventionality yields even to a minor memory. There is certainly no question of presenting Peacock as a great man, even a great literary man ; or as a small literary person who is in any sense a find. But Peacock is less generally known than he deserves to be, so that a finger-post here and there by the high-road may not be quite an impertinence.
Peacock does not appear to have been really popular in his own day; and we should judge from his frequent raps at the Edinburgh Review, that there was at least one quarter in which he failed to win a success of esteem. His modern readers could not well be many. He never even imagined that he was to have a perennial “audience fit though few.” Yet the fact remains of his real, if limited and somewhat antiquating, charm. It is a charm which could not possibly belong to any product of our own bustling literary mode, and which is for that very reason worth reverting to for modem readers who are not satisfied with enjoying one kind of thing.
The external facts of Peacock’s life do not go very far toward explaining the peculiar character of his work. He was born in 1788, the son of a London merchant; was self-taught after the age of thirteen; entered the service of the East India Company, and at twenty-eight secured a responsible post as Chief Examiner of Indian Correspondence. This office he held for forty years, to be succeeded on his retirement by no less a person than John Stuart Mill. Yet a mellow classical scholarship, and an air of humorous detachment from practical affairs, are the Peacockian qualities which are likely to impress modern readers most forcibly. How did he find time and opportunity to acquire this mood of bland leisure ? Headlong Hall was published in 1815, Crotchet Castle in 1830, and Gryll Grange in 1860; they might all of them have been the work of some conservative and witty don of Cam or Isis, serenely satirical over his second bottle, and somewhat garrulous in his skepticism as to new modes of government, of thought, and of cookery. The affairs of the East India Company were not, it seems, conducted upon the American plan; we have reason to know that those famous London offices contained more than one quiet corner where it was possible for a man to deal in other commodities than those of Ind; to grow ripe, say, in the humanities, and courteously to entertain a reputable Muse.
Peacock is commonly classed among the novelists, and the word novel does not mean enough to make it worth while to challenge the classification. It may be said, however, that he found his models in the eighteenth century, and in the work, not of the English novelists, but of the French satirical romancers. They used a discursive form bearing some such relation to fiction as the morality play bears to the drama. Now and then we come upon a bit of true action, or of lively characterization; but for the most part the talk’s the thing, and the talk is of types of men and modes of human behavior. If Peacock had been born fifty years earlier, he would as like as not have made creditable place for himself among the Spectators and Guardians, the Ramblers and Idlers of that leisurely ruminating century to which, rather than to his own, he belonged. He could not, as essayist, have produced a Sir Roger, or, as novelist, an Uncle Toby. His characters lack the human, or rather personal, touch. There is no getting at them apart from the qualities for which they stand. With one or two exceptions they are as distinctly lay figures as Ben Jonson’s; and Peacock uses the pictorial proper name quite as frankly to announce the fact. Often his label is some more or less fantastic Latin or Greek derivative, but quite as often he is contented with the simplest English forms. Mr. Toobad, Mr. Crotchet, Mr. Listless, the Reverend Mr. Grovelgrub, the Earl of Foolincourt, the borough of Rogueingrain; such a nomenclature might have served Bunyan perfectly, and confesses the official character of the persons named. To endow them with personality seems to have been beyond the aim as well as beyond the powers of our humorist, whose classical bias doubtless led him to regard that kind of invention with indifference if not disdain. He was not a poet, or we might draw a pretty close analogy between him and Landor in this respect; though Landor, as it happened, made use of well-known historical names where Peacock employed didactic tags. It matters little whether, to point your study of a human type, you say Cromwell or Lord Hackemdown: if you make Cromwell alive, you have transcended your office.
Peacock did, to be sure, produce several recognizable portraits; but if they are sketches from the life, they are still, pretty clearly, sketches from the living type. The most important of them, to modern readers, are the Scythrop and Cypress of Nightmare Abbey, acknowledged to be after Shelley and Byron. Shelley is known to have been delighted with the portrait, perhaps because he saw that, decided squint toward caricature as it had, it was a humorous delineation of the Shelleyan type rather than the Shelleyan individual: —
“ When Scythrop grew up, he was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him; and he was sent home like a well-threshed ear of corn, with nothing in his head; having finished his education to the high satisfaction of the master and the fellows of his college.... At the house of Mr. Hilary, Scythrop first saw the beautiful Miss Emily Girouette. He fell in love; which is nothing new. He was favourably received; which is nothing strange. Mr. Glowry and Mr. Girouette had a meeting on the occasion, and quarrelled about the terms of the bargain; which is neither new nor strange. The lovers were torn asunder, weeping and vowing everlasting constancy; and in three weeks after the tragical event, the lady was led a smiling bride to the altar, by the honourable Mr. Lackwit; which is neither strange nor new.” The blighted Scythrop succumbs first to Wertherism and next to a passion for reforming the world. “ He built many castles in the air, and peopled them with secret tribunals, and bands of illuminati, who were always the imaginary instruments of his projected regeneration of the human species. As he intended to institute a perfect republic, he invested himself with absolute sovereignty over these mystical dispensers of liberty. He slept with Horrid Mysteries under his pillow, and dreamed of venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves. . . . To get a clear view of his own ideas, and to feel the pulse of the wisdom and genius of the age, he wrote and published a treatise in which his meanings were carefully wrapped up in the monk’s hood of transcendental technology, but filled with hints of matter deep and dangerous, which he thought would set the whole nation in a ferment; and he awaited the result in awful expectation, as a miner who has fired a train awaits the explosion of a rock. However, he listened and heard nothing; for the explosion, if any ensued, was not sufficiently loud to shake a single leaf of the ivy on the towers of Nightmare Abbey; and some months afterwards he received a letter from his bookseller, informing him that only seven copies had been sold, and concluding with a polite request for the balance. Scythrop did not despair. ‘Seven copies,’ he thought, ‘have been sold. Seven is a mystical number, and the omen is good. Let me find the seven purchasers of my seven copies, and they shall be seven golden candlesticks with which I will illuminate the world.’”
Much of this we recognize as pretty directly transcribed from Shelley’s youthful experience; but, as we have suggested, it is still more clearly a presentation of the typical boyish visionary and enthusiast. Just so Cypress is a portrait of the Byronic type; though there is no difficulty in tracing many of his thoughts and even phrases to their source in Childe Harold and elsewhere: “I have no hope for myself or for others. Our life is a false nature: it is not in the harmony of things; it is an all-blasting upas, whose root is earth, and whose leaves are the skies which rain their poison-dews upon mankind. We wither from our youth; we gasp with unslaked thirst for unattainable good; lured from the first to the last by phantoms — love, fame, ambition, avarice — all idle, all ill — one meteor of many names, that vanishes in the smoke of death.” To reduce such stuff to prose is to make it absurd indeed. This was written just after the publication of the later cantos of Childe Harold. Byron had been in exile but a year or two, and the howl of popular execration which had attended his departure was hardly yet subsiding. Under the circumstances it is remarkable that, sharply as he ridicules the Byronic philosophy, Peacock casts no slur upon the Byronic character. What could be more perfect than Mr. Cypress’s dismissal from the scene ? “ Mr. Cypress, having his ballast on board, stepped, the same evening, into his bowl, or travelling chariot, and departed to rake seas and rivers, lakes and canals, for the moon of ideal beauty.” Peacock and Byron, be it noted in passing, were to be joint executors of Shelley, who left his satirist a substantial legacy as a further token of the value he had set upon their longstanding friendship.
Peacock evidently recognized his kinship to Jonson and the didactic humorists. A passage from Every Man in his Humour is used as motto to Nightmare Abbey, and verses from Hudibras, to Crotchet Castle and Gryll Grange. The types which he portrays are not very numerous, but he rightly takes them to be representative not only of the English society of his own day, but, beneath their temporary trappings, of all human society. In the Preface to a collection of his work, published in 1837, he remarks, “The classes of tastes, feelings, and opinions which were successively brought into play in these little tales, remain substantially the same. Perfectabilians, deteriorationists, statu-quoites, phrenologists, logists, transcendentalists,political economists, theorists in all sciences, projectors in all arts, morbid visionaries, romantic enthusiasts, lovers of music, lovers of the picturesque, and lovers of good dinners, march, and will march forever, pari passu, with the march of mechanics, which some facetiously call the march of intellect.”
In the opening chapter of the first of his satirical fantasias, four of these typical characters are introduced: “Foster, quasi Φωστηρ, from ϕаος and τηρεω, lucem servo, conservo, observo, custodio — one who watches over and guards the light. . . . Escot, quasi ϵς σκοτον, in tenebras, scilicet, intuens ; one who is always looking into the dark side of the question. . . . Jenkison: This name may be derived from аιϵνϵξ ισων, semper ex œqualibus, — scilicet, mensuris, omnia metiens: one who from equal measures divides and distributes all things ; one who from equal measures can always produce arguments on both sides of a question, with so much nicety and exactness, as to keep the said question eternally pending, and the balance of the controversy perpetually in statu quo. By an aphæresis of the a, an elision of the second ϵ, and an easy and natural mutation of ξ into κ, the derivation proceeds according to the strictest principles of etymology: аιϵν ϵξ ισων— Ιϵν ϵξ ισων — Ιϵν ϵκ ισων — Ιϵν ’κ ισων— Ιϵνκισων — Ienldson — Jenkison. . . . Gaster: scilicet гаστηρ — venter, — et præterea nihil.”
All this belongs to a variety of erudite facetiousness which is not especially grateful to the modern ear. Etymology is no longer an admired topic for the conversation of gentlemen. Not even Peacock’s obvious consciousness of extravagance is likely to make his amiable pedantry palatable to the offspring of a modern scientific education. In his fondness for verbal archæology and invention he rivals the mighty Browne himself: witness such words as “ philotheoparoptesism,” and “ jeremitaylorically,” not to speak of the monstrous double-birth of sound which he puts into the mouth of his phrenologist, Mr. Cranium : the word “ osteosarchæmatosplanchnochondroneuromuelous,” being supplemented with the “more intelligible” Latin derivative, “ osseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary. ”
But a scientific mind would discern, beyond this amorous and whimsical classicism of manner, a more serious cause of offense in Peacock’s unconcealed distrust of the importance to human life of the additions to knowledge, and to material efficiency, which were then beginning to be so loudly celebrated. Peacock was three parts statu-quoite, one part deteriorationist. “The march of mechanics, which some facetiously call the march of intellect,” is a phrase which might serve as motto for much of his discourse. “‘I conceive,’ said Mr. Foster, ‘that men are virtuous in proportion as they are enlightened; and that, as every generation increases in knowledge, it also increases in virtue.’ ‘I wish it were so,’ said Mr. Escot, ’but to me the very reverse appears to be the fact. . . . The sciences advance. True. A few years of study puts a modern mathematician in possession of more than Newton knew, and leaves him at leisure to add new discoveries of his own. Agreed. But does this make him a Newton ? Does it put him in possession of that range of intellect, that grasp of mind, from which the discoveries of Newton sprang ? It is mental power that I look for: if you can demonstrate the increase of that, I will give up the field. Energy — independence — individuality — disinterested virtue — active benevolence — self-oblivion — universal philanthropy — these are the qualities I desire to find, and of which I contend that every succeeding age produces fewer examples.’”
‘“I admit,’ says Mr. Foster on a later occasion, after a spirited sally by Mr. Escot, ‘I admit there are many things that may, and therefore will, be changed for the better.’
“‘Not on the present system,’said Mr. Escot, ‘in which every change is for the worse.’
“‘In matters of taste I am sure it is,’ said Mr. Gall; ‘there is, in fact, no such thing as good taste left in the world.’
‘“Oh, Mr. Gall!’ said Miss Philomela Poppyseed, ‘ I thought my novel— ’ “‘My paintings,’ said Sir Patrick O’Prism, —
“‘My ode,’ said Mr. MacLaurel —
“ ‘My ballad,’said Mr. Nightshade — “‘My plan for Lord Littlebrain’s park,’ said Marmaduke Milestone, Esquire —
“‘My essay,’ said Mr. Treacle — ‘“My sonata,’said Mr. Chromatic — “ ‘ My claret,’ said Squire Headlong — “‘My lectures,’ said Mr. Cranium — “‘Vanity of vanities,’ said the Reverend Dr. Gaster, turning down an empty egg-shell; ‘ all is vanity and vexation of spirit.’ ”
Dr. Gaster is the first of a considerable line of learned and convivial parsons : the Reverend Doctors Larynx, Folliott, Portpipe, and Opimian. Dr. Folliott, really the central figure in the best of these effusions, is the richest and most delightful embodiment of the favorite type. Indubitably a product of the eighteenth century, he is neither a Parson Adams nor a Vicar of Wakefield. His palate is no more eager than his mind, and his stomach no more retentive than his memory. Over a well-filled table he grows mellow in spirit as well as in body. He has no patience with the “march of mind,” and takes it hard that his cook should have nearly burned the house down by falling asleep over “hydrostatics, in a sixpenny tract. published by the Steam Intellect Society, and written by a learned friend who is for doing all the world’s business as well as his own, and is equally well qualified to handle every branch of human knowledge.” He has a cheerful contempt for reform, progress, and Scotchmen. The modern watchword, he complains, is “everything for everybody, science for all, schools for all, rhetoric for all, physic for all, words for all, and sense for none.” He distrusts the human usefulness of the man who does not know who was Jupiter’s greatgrandfather, and “what metres will successively remain, if you take off, one by one, the three first syllables from a pure antispastic catalectic tetrameter.” Withal, he has an endearing touch of irascibility; there are moments when the tone of controversy grows warm:
THE REVEREND DR. FOLLIOTT.
Alter erit tum Tiphys, et altera quæ vehat Argo Delectos Heroas. I will be of the party, though I must hire an officiating curate, and deprive poor Mrs. Folliott, for several weeks, of the pleasure of combing my wig.
I hope, if I am to be of the party, our ship is not to be the ship of fools: He! He!
THE REV. DR. FOLLIOTT.
If you are one of the party, sir, it most assuredly will not: Ha! Ha!
Pray, sir, what do you mean by Ha! Ha!?
THE REV. DR. FOLLIOTT.
Precisely, sir, what you mean by He! He!
Peacock was not a Dr. Folliott, but Dr. Folliott expresses a good deal of him. Crotchet Castle is the work of his prime: more mellow than the earlier satires, more vigorous than the Gryll Grange of thirty years later. Dr. Folliott has company worthy of him, and company somewhat more varied than is to be found in the other tales. Besides our more or less argumentative types, — our transcendental poet, our Scotch economist, our bibulous squire, and the rest, — there is an amusing pair of fashionables, who deliver themselves of some excellent eighteenth-century comedy dialogue, — Captain Fitzchrome high-flown and sentimental, Lady Clarinda vain, flighty, and mocking.
Oh, Lady Clarinda, there is a heartlessness in that language that chills me to the soul. . . . Is it come to this, that you make a jest of my poverty ? Yet is my poverty only comparative. Many decent families are maintained on smaller terms.
Decent families: aye, decent is the distinction from respectable. Respectable means rich, and decent means poor. I should die if I heard my family called decent. And then your decent family always lives in a snug little place: I hate a little place: I like large rooms and large looking-glasses and large parties, and a fine large butler, with a tinge of smooth red on his face; an outward and visible sign that the family he serves is respectable; if not noble, highly respectable.
All this is no doubt belated enough. It might, and according to some authorities should, have been written a strong fifty years earlier. In form, as well as in content, Peacock was, if that is any satisfaction — or dissatisfaction — a survival rather than an original. He did not, like Sterne or like Borrow, invent a discursive style. There were, as we have said, pre-revolutionary French models of satirical narrative which he was wise enough to follow not more closely than effectively. They suited his purpose; and his purpose was not to be queer, but to do something worth while, — as natural an aim for a literary man, it may be, as for anybody else. That was an age which exposed itself with singular ingenuousness to the thrust of satire. It was an age of successful charlatanry in politics, war, society, science, and literature. The world was on a new course, and had not yet got its bearings. Peacock’s conservative temper and quick eye qualified him to note with fidelity, if with good-natured scorn, the extravagances and ill-considered experiments of the day. Time has tempered many of those extravagances, and given a conclusive test to most of those experiments. And yet Peacock was quite right in claiming for his work a more important appositeness than mere timeliness. He, also, might claim to be speaking for all time, if not, like Aristophanes and Juvenal, Cervantes and. Fielding, to all time. Our folly seems to us far more markedly different from the folly of our fathers than it is going to seem to our great-grandchildren. The twenty-first century will confound the memories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the twentieth already begins to confound the seventeenth and the eighteenth. Did Cowper belong to the Lake school ? and were pantalets worn under the first George or the last ? ... Phrenology is no longer a popular issue, nor is tablerapping; but sociology and “psychical research” are very decent equivalents; and the membership of the Steam Intellect Society is continually swelling.
“I think, doctor,” says Mrs. Opimian, “you would not maintain any opinion if you had not an authority two thousand years old for it.”
“Well, my dear,” is the reverend doctor’s placid retort, “I think most opinions worth mentioning have an authority of about that age.”
Mr. Arthur Symons’s vigorous utterance upon the newspaper finds a fairly close parallel in a certain sally of Dr. Opimian’s: “Let us see, what is the epitome of a newspaper ? In the first place, specimens of all the deadly sins, and infinite varieties of violence and fraud; a great quantity of talk, called by courtesy legislative wisdom, of which the result is ‘an incoherent and undigested mass of law, shot down as from a rubbish-heap, on the heads of the people;’ lawyers barking at each other in that peculiar style of hylactic delivery which is called forensic eloquence, and of which the first and most distinguished practitioner was called Cerberus; beargarden meetings of mismanaged companies, in which directors and shareholders abuse each other in choice terms, not all to be found even in Rabelais. . . . Societies of all sorts, for teaching everybody everything, meddling with everybody’s business, and mending everybody’s morals; mountebank advertisements, promising the beauty of Helen in a bottle of cosmetic and the age of old Parr in a box of pills . . . announcements that some exceedingly stupid fellow has been ‘entertaining’ a select company.”
There is no denying that the good doctor, like his creator, hates not a few institutions simply because they were not known to the Greeks. And the rule works both ways: he will not admit the Greeks inferior in anything, arguing that their practice in painting was as perfect as in poetry and sculpture, and that their morals were as unexceptionable as their taste. To a judgment so biased and trained there was much to offend in the literary manner of the hour. Peacock loses no chance to rap the realistic method then coming into fashion: “The whole party followed, with the exception of Scythrop, who threw himself into his armchair, crossed his left foot over his right knee, placed the hollow of his left hand on the inner ankle of his left leg, rested his right elbow on the elbow of the chair, placed the ball of his right thumb against his right temple, curved the forefinger along the upper part of his forehead, rested the point of the middle finger on the bridge of his nose, and the point of the two others on the lower part of the palm, fixed his eyes intently on the veins on the back of his left hand, and sat in this position like the immovable Theseus, who, as is well known to many who have not been at college, and to some few who have, sedet, œternumque sedebit. We hope the admirers of the minutiæ in poetry and romance will appreciate this accurate description of a pensive attitude.” Fifteen years later we find our satirist increasingly warm against the realistic trick: on one occasion. speaking in his own person, he works himself into a very pretty passion against modern literature :
“We shall leave,” he says, after another bit of mock description, “this tempting field of interesting expatiation to those whose brains are high-pressure steam-engines for spinning prose by the furlong, to be trumpeted in paid-for paragraphs in the quack’s corner of newspapers: modern literature having attained the honourable distinction of sharing with blacking and macassar oil the space which used to be monopolised by razor-strops and the lottery, whereby that very enlightened community, the reading public, is tricked into the perusal of much exemplary nonsense; though the few who see through the trickery have no reason to complain, since as ‘good wine needs no bush,’ so, ex vi oppositi, these bushes of venal panegyric point out very clearly that the things they celebrate are not worth reading.”
Elsewhere our censor is even more emphatic in his reflections upon contemporary letters. Scott he dismisses outright, in good set terms; not, perhaps, with the most perfect candor. There had been some little preference on the part of the critics as well as of the public; of the Edinburgh Review in particular, manned by a crew of the hated Scotch breed, among whom had been the romancer himself. At all events it was a bold Dr. Folliott who in 1830 (Carlyle had his say some eight years later, — not in the Edinburgh Review) could compare the Waverley Novels, then at the height of their fame, with the Covent Garden pantomimes: “They are both one,” he asserts, “with a slight difference. The one is the literature of pantomime, the other is the pantomime of literature. There is the same variety of character, the same diversity of story, the same copiousness of incident, the same research into costume, the same display of heraldry, falconry, minstrelsy, scenery, monkery, witchery, devilry, robbery, poachery, piracy, fishery, gipsy-astrology, demonology, architecture, fortification, castrametation, navigation ; the same running base of love and battle. The main difference is, that the one set of amusing fictions is told in music and action; the other in all the worst dialects of the English language. As to any sentence worth remembering, any moral or political truth, anything having a tendency, however remote, to make men wiser or better, to make men think, to make them even think of thinking, they are both precisely alike : nuspiam, nequaquam, nullibi, nullimodis.” . . . “Very amusing, however,” says Lady Clarinda. One can imagine the doctor betrayed into a snort and a glare which his breeding at once repents of. “Very amusing, very amusing,” is his only and perhaps sufficient retort, as to the precise inflection of which we can only speculate. As usual, the discussion begins and ends with a bumper; for Peacock invites us to a series of symposia in the full sense. Whatever their limitations or differences, the interlocutors are all stout trenchermen and lusty topers.
“You are leaving England, Mr. Cypress,” says Mr. Glowry on a certain occasion. “There is a delightful melancholy in saying farewell to an old acquaintance, when the chances are twenty to one against ever meeting again. A smiling bumper to a sad parting, and let us all be unhappy together.
MR. CYPRESS(filling a bumper)
This is the only social habit that the disappointed spirit never unlearns.
THE REVEREND MR. LARYNX (filling)
It is the only piece of academical learning that the finished educatee retains.
It is the only objective fact which the sceptic can realise.
It is the only styptic for a bleeding heart.
THE HONOURABLE MR. LISTLESS (filling) It is the only trouble that is very well worth taking.
MR. ASTERIAS (filling)
It is the only key of conversational truth.
MR. TOOBAD (filling)
It is the only antidote to the great wrath of the devil.
It is the only symbol of perfect life. The inscription ‘HIC NON BIBITUB’ will suit nothing but a tombstone.”
Talk, for all this, is the first object of these convivial assemblies; and if the Burgundy appears now and then to have gone in the direction of the head of one or other of the company, it never succeeds in stealing away their brains. Nobody speaks thick, nobody is taken home in a wheelbarrow. Dr. Folliott is inspired to the point of knocking out two thugs one night, on his blameless way home to the bosom of Mrs. Folliott: the only “low” occurrence recorded of these mighty men. Six years later, with the creation of Pickwick and his not merely drinking but drunken associates, the last straw was added to the burden which Fielding and Smollett had heaped upon eighteenth-century standards of decorum. Peacock, for his part, continued to hold to them; so that Dr. Opimian, born full-grown as late as 1860, displays the same admirable balance of capacity and sobriety we have been admiring in the worthy Folliott. Talk, I say, is the main object here, — talk about anything whatever, from how to cook a gudgeon to how to rule a state, from a theory of wealth to a theory of immortality. “The sentimental against the rational, the intuitive against the inductive, the ornamental against the useful, the intense against the tranquil, the romantic against the classical: these,”says Mr. Crotchet mildly, “are great and interesting controversies, which I should like, before I die, to see satisfactorily settled.”
It must not be suggested (to any reader who may be uninformed by a first-hand acquaintance) that Peacock is helpless to do anything but argue by means of dialogue. His tales contain some admirable descriptions of that English countryhouse life which, according to the recent utterance of a capable critic, was the source and theme of very much of English mid-nineteenth-century literature. His descriptive matter is brief, but every word tells. Where can you find a better suggestion of the ease, the elegance, the exclusive privileges of that life than in these two sentences? “Four beautiful cabined pinnaces, one for the ladies, one for the gentlemen, one for kitchen and servants, one for a dining-room and band of music, weighed anchor, on a fine July morning, from below Crotchet Castle, and were towed merrily, by strong trotting horses, against the stream of the Thames. . . . Sometimes they dined in their floating dining-room, sometimes in tents, which they pitched on the dry smooth-shaven green of a newly-mown meadow; sometimes they left their vessel to see sights in the vicinity; sometimes they passed a day or two in a comfortable inn.” The writer lived most of his life in London; but had to look to the country for that atmosphere of cultivated leisure which his temperament and the character of his work demanded.
Peacock attempted, it remains to be said, two other roles beside that of the discursive satirist: he wrote two romances, and a great deal of verse. Maid Marian seems to me the most spirited and graceful version of the Robin Hood legend which we possess. Its undertone of quiet irony, to be sure, betrays the lurking satirist. “The Abbey of Rubygill,” we are told at the outset, “stood in a picturesque valley, at a little distance from the western boundary of Sherwood Forest, in a spot which seemed adapted by nature to be the retreat of monastic mortification, being on the banks of a fine trout-stream, and in the midst of woodland coverts, abounding in excellent game.” It may naturally be surmised that devout admirers of the forest scenes in Ivanhoe (which appeared only a year or two earlier than Maid Marian) would have considered Peacock uncomfortably flippant. Well, Scott’s day is by no means over yet, while Peacock’s name is not to be found in certain modern manuals of English literature. Such is the difference of fate in most ages between a wizard of story-telling and an ironical commentator on life. Peacock’s books are, however, as we should by this have sufficiently proved, well able to stand the test which, according to Dr. Folliott, Scott absolutely fails to meet. “My quarrel with him is that his works contain nothing worth quoting; and a book that furnishes no quotations is, me judice, no book — it is a plaything. There is no question about the amusement — amusement of multitudes; but if he who amuses us most is to be our enchanter κаτ’ ϵξοχην, then my enchanter is the enchanter of Covent Garden.”
The Misfortunes of Elphin, Peacock’s second romance, I think simply dull; mainly perhaps because it stands for an attempt to enchant on the part of a man who was not an enchanter. That rambling narrative contains, we suppose, not a little properly authenticated Welsh lore of the heraldry-falconry-minstrelsy-scenery sort. It may be symbolic or something: I don’t know; but I must place it on record as a bit of Peacock which I can make nothing of. Part of the difficulty seems to lie in the fact that the tale is decorated with numerous translations from Welsh poetry. Peacock, let me make a clean breast of it, wrote much, very much verse, of which not a line that I have read is worth rereading. So be it: Bacon and some others have not been able to write poetry either. It is nothing against a man that he has tried. We set out with the intention, not of proving that Peacock wrote Shelley, but of recommending a worthily amusing and little read author to people who like to be worthily amused; or of recalling him to some persons who may have known and half-forgotten him. For his success in one of the most difficult of literary fields
— that of prose satire — nay, of course we mean for his continued ability to give a certain kind of pleasure to persons who happen to be properly constituted for it,
— he is in no great danger of being entirely forgotten.
One moment, then, we may fitly, even at this busy hour, devote to the celebration of his memory; and in what way better than according to that hearty ritual of Dr. Opimian? “And now to his health in bumpers of champagne. Let all the attendants stand by, each with a fresh bottle, with only one uncut string. Let all the corks, when I give the signal, be discharged simultaneously; and we will receive it as a peal of Bacchic ordnance, in honour ” of one of the most genial, if not one of the greatest, of English humorists.