The Essay

THE late Lytton Strachey was a man of few published books and of deserved renown in his own time. His loss, beyond all question, was very great in the history of English letters. Like Max Beerbohm, with whom, indeed, he shares certain strange qualities of wit and precision, he was most scrupulous in all matters that involved publication. It is for this reason that his brother James, in the preface to Strachey’s posthumous volume, Characters and Commentaries (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00}, is at various pains to make clear that ‘ many of the essays which are here reprinted were, I feel sure, entirely overlooked by my brother when he was putting together his collected volumes; others no doubt he deliberately left aside for one reason or another.’ It is indeed probable that he would have rejected at least one third of the present contents; for it seems highly improbable that the author of Queen Victoria and Eminent Victorians would unconsciously overlook such a generous bulk of material already printed above his signature in various magazines.
Yet the price which Strachey must pay for posthumous appearance will be absurdly small. We are given here some sixty pages of his apprenticeship: a group of papers called ‘English Letter Writers,’ from the Elizabethans to Keats and Lamb. These, we are told, were written in 1905, in his twenty-fifth year, while he was at Cambridge. They have not previously been printed. Reading them, almost as much as reading the early Oxford Works of the incomparable Max, we come to the reluctant conclusion that Strachey was born with his style and intellect, and lacked even then little of the mental and technical perfection we have come to associate with his average prose. Let us look at an almost arbitrary sample: ‘The precept “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” has come down to the degenerate descendants of Candide in the form of “Have an eye to the main chance” — a very different exhortation. The twentieth century has learned to cultivate its garden so well that it makes a profit of ten per cent.’
Some of the essays, like ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Shakespeare at Cambridge’ (of the definitely later period), are little more than discardable fragments. Several served first as introductions to other men’s books. There is at least one masterpiece, and that is the essay on Pope—the Leslie Stephen Lecture for 1925. It alone is worth the volume. In that, and in nearly any example you may choose, Strachey by comparison or implication has hinged his thought upon the eighteenth century which he has so often, and so brilliantly, interpreted. Shelley is ‘an adolescent.’ Byron, whose ‘nearest approach to an epigram is a bad pun,’ ‘was an inveterate poseur; and his poetry was merely the result of one of a large number of his poses.’ Bernhardt became ‘a magnificent relic of the past.’ Disraeli, ‘the gorgeous sphinx, seems to ring hollow after all.’ Amy Lowell’s lectures ‘throw more light on Boston than on the French poets.’ Thomas Hardy, who must, in his verse, have appeared half-hewn to Strachey, made a better impression; but the study of his poems, Satires of Circumstance, ends with a gloomy quotation. ‘And the gloom,’ he says, ‘is not even relieved by a little elegance of diction.’
This is the Strachey of Books and Characters, of Portraits in Miniature: learned, polished, cunning, wittier than ever. Only he could write so undetnandingly of Gray; so startlingly of Dostoievsky, ‘a Russian humorist.’ It is not a little sad to see him here, then, for the last time: Voltaire on one arm, Pope on the other, strolling down the ten centuries of a Chinese anthology, or scolding in great bias at some luckless inmate of the twentieth, but always returning to the shades of his ripe eighteenth, where, indeed, he was bitterly at home.
Lovers of Trivia and More Trivia — and they must now be legion — should welcome the collected volume, All Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith (Harcourt, Brace, $2.00). But, like so many similar attempts at collecting, the book has been padded with a group of slightly inferior epigrams. And some of us who prefer the original volumes, with each small chapter beginning on a fresh page, resent here the telescopic, end-to-end arrangement; and resent the redistribution, in an additional section called ‘Last Words,’ of a few remembered pieces that chance to deal with the benefits and disadvantages of age. Otherwise I may add that all or any Trivia are among the best things to be read that ingenuity can borrow or money can buy.
Pearsall Smith has also written a new and delightful guide, On Reading Shakespeare (Harcourt, Brace, $1.50); a series of connected essays on what he calls the great adventure and the great reward of the amateur reader of ‘le grand Will.’ If ever there was a torch to light a greater light, then this is it. A book full of poetry and understanding, intelligence for the intelligent, delight beyond description for the layman rightly curious.
A. Edward Newton in End Papers (Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $3.00) is at it again. His amenities of book-collecting and adventures among the collectorate have now run to five volumes, and this last has run a little thin. It is most curious that although Mr. Newton speaks of Holbrook Jackson several times in the present volume, — chiefly in connection with Jackson’s editing of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (‘I boast a presentation copy,’ he says), — and of his own volume, The Anatomy of Bibliomania, he makes nowhere any reference to the fact that this same Jackson, under the name of Bernard Lintot, published in London some years ago a book of essays called End Papers. An accident, but unfortunate.
Mr. Newton’s conversation about books is genial, if too personal. He talks about his literary friends, like Mr. Jackson, Agnes Repplier, the late Augustine Birrell, or Carolyn Wells; about his literary passions, such as Lamb and Dickens; about his literary acquisitions, including the manuscript of ‘Dream-Children’ and the dictated original of (aged six) Stevenson’s first, book. He tells us, ïaively, how he helped sell a great many copies of one of Miss Repplier’s books, how he started Miss Wells collecting Whitman, how he came by certain (generally expensive) items; or he ventures solid opinions, as that ‘ Moby Dick is our one great contribution to literature.’ It is chiefly gossip, carelessly set down. There is a touching (if surface) account of Mary Webb. There is — but Mr, Newton should have been a dealer. As he says himself, in a futuristic projection: ‘I shall be listening eagerly for the latest prices of rare books.’