Prose Writer of The Age of Tennyson

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      Carlyle. Incomparably the greatest figure in the general prose literature of his age, and one of the greatest moral forces of the modern world, THOMAS CARLYLE was born in 1795 at Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, where his father was a stonemason. He sprang straight from the rugged Scottish peasantry, and the stern doctrines of the old Calvinism in which he was bred left, in spite of all his intellectual growth, a lasting impression upon his mind. From the Academy at Annan, where he received the rudiments of his education, he proceeded to Edinburgh University, where he matriculated in 1809. Leaving without taking a degree, he then taught for a time at Annan and Kirkcaldy. His parents’ design had been that he should enter the Scottish Church, but radical changes in his religious views made this impossible. Endowed with a passionately earnest nature, he suffered agonies from the doubts which assailed him during the many dark years in which he wandered in the ‘howling wilderness of infidelity’, striving vainly to recover his lost belief in God, in life, and in himself; and then suddenly there came a moment of mystical illumination, or ‘spiritual new birth’, which restored him, not indeed to his former religious convictions, but at least to the mood of courage and faith. The history both of the protracted spiritual conflict and of the strange experience by which it was ended, is written with immense power in the second book of Sartor Resartus.

      Unfortunately, though mental relief was now obtained, he was already the victim of the acute dyspepsia which was henceforth to make his life miserable and to color much of his thought. Private teaching and hack writing (which included a translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister) provided him with a scanty and precarious livelihood, and in 1825 he published in book-form his first important piece of independent work, his admirable Life of Schiller. In 1826 he married Jane Welsh, a woman of brilliant intellectual parts, and for some years contributed much to the magazines, especially on subjects connected with German literature—a literature in which he had found ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. On her father’s death, Mrs. Carlyle inherited a small farmhouse amid the dreary moorlands of Craigenputtoch, in Dumfriesshire; and it was while living there that he produced his most characteristic book, which is also one of the most remarkable and vital books in modern English literature, Sartor Resartus. In the summer of 1834 he moved to London. His French Revolution appeared in 1837; his lectures on Heroes and Hero-Worship (delivered in 1839-40) in 1841; Past and Present (the most penetrating and influential of all the many books which were inspired by the critical social and industrial conditions of the time; see 105) in 1843; the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell in 1845; Latter-day Pamphlets (a piece of ferocious social criticism) in 1850; the Life of John Sterling (a valued friend who had died several years before) in 1851; the History of Frederick the Great, his last important work, in installments of two volumes a time, in 1858, 1862 and 1865. The death of his wife in 1866 was a blow from which he never recovered, and as he was now hopelessly pessimistic in regard to the movements and tendencies of the world about him, his remaining years were filled with sorrow and bitterness of soul. He died in 1881, and was buried, not in Westminster Abbey, as was suggested, but in accordance with his own wish, at Ecclefechan.

      Carlyle’s style, with its enormous wealth of vocabulary, its strangely constructed sentences, its breaks, abrupt turns, apostrophes and exclamations, is unique in our prose literature, and if at times it may seem uncouth and even chaotic, we must still regard even its most conspicuous mannerisms as the expression of the writer’s peculiar personality. He spoke contemptuously of art as art, and had no patience with the merely bookish side of literature; yet he was in his own way one of our greatest literary artists. In his mastery of vivid and telling phraseology, he is unrivaled. As we may realize by going no further than his wonderful prose-epic, The French Revolution, his descriptive power and power of characterization were alike remarkable. He employed sarcasm, irony, and invective with tremendous effect; and while his intense spirituality and fine imagination give him a place among the prophets and poets, rich and abundant humor was a no less salient feature of his genius. In all the essentials of his philosophy, he was fundamentally a puritan of the puritans. In him indeed the strenuous and uncompromising ethical spirit of seventeenth-century puritanism found its last great exponent. Unyielding in temper and fiercely in earnest, he was intolerant of moral weakness no less than of downright wrongdoing, and held that apathy and indifference were among the most deadly evils of the time. The keynote of his teaching was sincerity; he hated conventions and unrealities with a consuming hatred; the burden of his message was that there is no salvation in shams, even in the shams that have grown sacred through age, and that in society, politics, and religion, we must seek reality at all costs. History for him was ‘the larger Bible’—the revelation of God’s righteous dealings with men; and the lessons which he read in the past he carried over and applied to the present. His position in the modern world may perhaps be sufficiently denned in the statement that he was in absolute antagonism to all its most characteristic ideals and tendencies. He had no faith in democracy, which was for him the last word of political unwisdom, and was never weary of insisting that the great masses of the people need the guidance and leadership of the ‘hero’ or ‘able man’. He poured the vials of his wrath upon the easygoing optimism which had been bred by rapidly developing commercial prosperity, and with all the impassioned zeal of a Hebrew prophet, proclaimed a spiritual standard of life to a generation which had fallen into idolatrous worship of the ‘mud-gods of modern civilization’. He denounced scientific materialism and the utilitarianism (or ‘pig-philosophy’) which went along with it, and with a power far beyond that of any of his contemporaries, preached God and spiritual freedom as the only life-giving truths. Carlyle could not indeed turn back the currents of his age; but it would not be easy to exaggerate his influence upon it.

      Ruskin. By virtue of the extent and variety of his work, his vigor and originality, his influence on art, letters, and life, and the range and beauty of his style, JOHN RUSKIN is entitled to rank next after Carlyle in the general prose of his time. He was born in 1819, and though the place of his birth was London, he came of a Scottish stock. His father was a rich wine merchant, and as a boy and youth he enjoyed all the advantages which wealth can afford; yet his early training was as rigidly puritan as Carlyle’s had been, and everything in his home surroundings helped to deepen the ingrained earnestness of his nature. At Oxford, he won the Newdigate prize with a poem entitled Salsette and Elephanta (1839), and four years later published the first volume of Modern Painters, the primary purpose of which was to vindicate the genius of Turner, and, with a view to this, to expound the true principles of landscape-painting in general. Successive volumes appeared at intervals — the fifth and last in 1860; but by this time the work had outgrown its original design, and had expanded into a comprehensive, though extremely rambling treatise on aesthetics. In the meantime, he became as much occupied with architecture as with painting, and produced the companion volumes The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-53). As we may learn particularly from the last-named work and from The Two Paths (1859), however, his study of the history of art had led out into the study of social conditions; his interest was thus aroused in the practical problems of his own day; and the inspiration of Carlyle, whom in this respect he proclaimed his master, completed the transformation of the art critic into the philanthropist and reformer. In later life, especially as Slade Professor at Oxford, he continued his work in the history and theory of art; but most of his time and energy was now devoted to social propaganda, and ever his academic utterances were deeply colored by his new enthusiasms. With splendid unselfishness, he now gave his genius, his strength, and his wealth to the great social causes which he had taken to heart, and while he directed his efforts to all sorts of practical ends, he continued to expound his social and economic theories in lectures, essays, and books. Unto this Last (1861), Munera Pulveris (1862), Time and Tide by Wear and Tyne (1867), and the series of ‘letters to the working men of England’, entitled Fors Clavigera (1871-84), set forth his political economy, and his educational and institutional ideals; his more general ethical teachings may be found, for example, in Sesame and Lilies (1865) and The Crown of Wild Olive (1866). He spent the closing years of his life in failing health at his home on Coniston Water, in the Lake District, and there he died in 1900.

      It will be seen that Ruskin’s work, which is very great in bulk and miscellaneous In character, falls roughly into two divisions; his writings on art, mainly before 1860; and his writings after 1860, on social, economic, and ethical questions. The connection between these two sides of his activity, however, is far closer than might at first sight be supposed. His later practical teachings were, indeed, the logical outcome and development of his teachings on art. His aesthetics rested ultimately on moral foundations. True art, he insisted, can be produced only by a nation which is inspired by noble national aims, and lives a pure, righteous, and happy life; and it was, therefore, he deemed, all but useless to preach art to nineteenth-century England, sunk as it was, as regarded the wealthier classes, in sordid materialism, and, as regarded the great submerged masses of the people, in poverty and misery. A complete purification of the entire social system—an ‘entire change of heart’, as he put it—was necessary before any revival of art was possible in England; and it was by this line of reasoning that he was forced to the conclusion that even as a lover of art his best work could for the moment be done in the field of social service.

      Apart from the significance of its basic moral principle that all great art is “the expression of an art-gift by a pure soul”, Ruskin’s aesthetic doctrine has special importance for its emphasis upon the need of a constant, direct, first-hand study of nature. Here, as we see, he was following in art the lead of Wordsworth in poetry, and like Wordsworth, he helped to break down the tyranny of convention and tradition, and to put men once more into living touch with living reality. The artist, he insisted, must abandon altogether the stereotyped formalism of the schools, and instead of trying to paint like some famous master—say, Raphael—must go straight to nature for himself, and strive to reproduce faithfully what he finds there, “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing”. It was this part of Ruskin’s philosophy which specially inspired the Pre-Raphaelites (see 108). He was also an eloquent advocate of the claims of Gothic (or Christian) as against classic (or pagan) art, and exercised immense influence in developing in his generation a love for the painting and architecture of the middle ages. At this point we should remember that while the strongly accentuated puritanism of his character allied him to such men as Knox and Carlyle, his equally strong romantic bias connected him with Scott, of whom, in contrast with Carlyle, he was all his life long an ardent admirer.

      In regard to his social and economic teaching, which when first enunciated was ridiculed as hopelessly quixotic and absurd, it is enough here to say that it must be interpreted as, at bottom, an attempt to apply the principles of Christianity directly to the practical business of life, national as well as individual. Hence his violent attack upon the accepted political economy of the time. In his denunciations of the sordid spirit of modern commercial England and its idolatrous worship of wealth and material success, he followed up the teachings of Carlyle, and in turn, became the chief leader of William Morris (see 108).

      Many faults may be found with Ruskin as a writer. He is whimsical and capricious; his discursiveness is irritating; his temper dogmatic; his manner often so petulant and aggressive as to stir the reader to revolt; in thought and phrase he is often fantastic; and his inconsistencies are so numerous and glaring as to shake our faith in the substantial value of his doctrine. But his spirit was always pure, noble, and chivalrous, and as a preacher of righteousness—and. this was essentially his role his influence told immensely for good. His style calls for the highest praise; and alike in the rich ornate prose of his early, and in the easy colloquialism of his later writing, he is in the front rank of our greatest masters. A special feature of his style is his marvelous power of word painting.

      Macaulay. In treating Carlyle and Ruskin as the greatest general prose writers of their age, we are adopting the revised judgment of history. Contemporary opinion would have given the first place to Macaulay, who in popularity far exceeded both of them. THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY was born in 1800, and after a brilliant academic record at Cambridge, opened a career of extraordinary and varied success with an essay on Milton in the Edinburgh Review for August, 1825. He went to the bar, entered the House of Commons, and made a reputation as an orator and statesman; but all the time he was writing steadily for the Edinburgh. He was in India as legal adviser to the Supreme Council from 1834 to 1838, and on his return to England re-entered public life, and after many years of strenuous political activity was raised to the peerage as Baron Macaulay of Rothley. His chief literary work was now his History of England from the Accession of James II, the first two volumes of which were published in 1848, instantly scoring a success such as no purely historical production had ever before enjoyed. Despite a collapse in health which left him a permanent invalid, he persevered with his great undertaking, and his third and fourth volumes appeared in 1855. The fifth was issued after his sudden death in 1859.

      Macaulay’s amazing vogue with the great public (and it is rightly said that even his purely literary essays have been widely read by persons who as a rule never think of reading criticism) may be explained by reference to a combination of qualities in his genius, of which some must be reckoned as excellences of the highest order, while others have rather to be set down on the adverse side of the account. He had a marvelous faculty for making everything he touched interesting; whatever might be the subject of his discourse, his animation was unbounded and he rarely wrote a dull page. As a mere story-teller, he could risk comparison with his greatest contemporaries in fiction, and he was as clear as he was energetic, vivacious, and picturesque. At the same time, we have to remember that save for his exceptional endowment of genius, he was an almost typical Englishman of his generation, and therefore delighted the average man because he expressed so eloquently the average man’s point of view about things instead of transcending or attacking it. Practical and positive in temper, untroubled by doubts and wholly indifferent to ‘the burden of the mystery’ of life, he was the very embodiment of sturdy commonsense; he hated the vague and the mystical, and he had a firm faith in the ‘happy materialism’ of his age. Readers who were simply bewildered by Carlyle and Ruskin, and resented, or were perhaps disturbed by, the persistency with which these great moral teachers challenged their comfortable optimism, found in Macaulay, with his downrightness and sanity, a man after their own hearts. His shallowness, too—and in his interpretation of history and character, he was undeniably shallow—made it all the easier for them to understand him; while his brilliant style—which in its lucidity, vivacity, hardness, and epigrammatic force is an exact index of his personality—gave a wonderful charm to everything he said. Macaulay was not a great thinker; he was not a great literary critic; and as biographer and historian, though always painstaking, he was often led into inaccuracy by his love of sweeping statements and striking contrasts. But his achievements were still remarkable. More than any other writer he may be said by his essays to have popularised a taste for literature, and his History remains the most generally attractive piece of historical narrative in the language.

      Arnold. The last prose writer to whom it is necessary here to give a separate section is MATTHEW ARNOLD. The son of Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby, he was born in 1822, distinguished himself at Oxford, was for a time private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, and from 1855 to within two years of his death worked hard as a lay inspector of schools. He also held the chair of poetry at Oxford from 1857 to 1867, and in 1883 and 1886 made lecturing tours in America. He died in 1888. Of his poetry, in the main the work of his earlier manhood, we have already spoken (see 108). His prose falls naturally into two divisions; in the one lie deals with literature, in the other, with life. His writings on literature are to be found chiefly in his two volumes of Essays in Criticism (1865 and 1888), Mixed Essays (1879), and Oxford Lectures on Translating Homer (1861, 1862), all of which are marked by the same qualities of insight, acumen, delicacy of perception, and fineness of taste. Regarding literature as essentially a ‘criticism of life’, he was mainly concerned with the moral values of the writers discussed, and in practice, he went far to realize his own conception of criticism as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world”. Yet he had lived too much with the Greeks to overlook the claims of art as art. He was not a great scholar; he was neither profound nor systematic, and his judgment was sometimes disturbed by caprice. But his literary criticism as a whole is wonderfully full, suggestive, and illuminating. As a critic of life, Arnold addressed himself to the task of breaking down the ‘hard unintelligence’ and enlarging the mental and moral horizon of the great English public, in his Culture and Anarchy (1869) and Friendship's Garland (1871); while in Literature and Dogma (1873) and God and the Bible (1875), he entered the theological field, and undertook to reconstruct essential Christianity on a basis of pure naturalism. His prose is admirable for its lucidity, grace, and charm, though he occasionally irritates by mannerisms and a trick of repetition. Always polished and urbane despite his colloquialism, he could none the less employ raillery and sarcasm with deadly effect. He had also an extraordinary gift of crystallizing his ideas in telling and memorable phrases. He was one of the most stimulating writers of his time, and though his temper was very different from Carlyle's or Ruskin’s, he did much useful work by carrying on, in his own way, their attack upon the materialism of modern life.

      Other Prose Writers of the Time. Out of the remaining innumerable company of Victorian prose writers who gained distinction in various fields, I here select for mention those few, and those few only, of whom even the briefest review of the period is bound to take some account.

      In history, HENRY THOMAS BUCKLE (1821-1862) showed the profound influence of physical science by his History of Civilisation in England, in which he made an attempt to eliminate the personal factor from human affairs, and to explain progress entirely by reference to natural causes and general laws. In part at least as a result of the example of Macaulay, though in part also as a result of the analytical tendencies of the age, many Victorian historians adopted the practice of writing at great length and in immense detail upon relatively short periods. Conspicuous illustrations may be found in The History of the Norman Conquest, a solid piece of work, by EDWARD AUGUSTUS FREEMAN (1823-1892); the brilliant but inaccurate History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, by JOHN HENRY FROUDE (1818-1894); the laborious series of volumes on the period of the Stuarts and the Civil War, by SAMUEL RAWDON GARDINER (1829-1902), and the equally painstaking and substantial History of England in the Eighteenth Century, by WILLIAM EDWARD HARTPOLE LECKY (1838-1903). The method of concentration, on the other hand, is admirably exemplified in the Short History of the English People, by JOHN RICHARD GREEN (1837-1883), the best book of the kind that we have. In this, the strong democratic influence of the time is apparent; it is a history, not of kings and wars only, but, as the title states, of the people.

      The seven volumes of JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS (1840-1893) on The Renaissance in Italy (a work of great merit, though sadly marred by prolixity and extreme floridness of diction), may be taken as a connecting link between history and aesthetic criticism. In this latter field, the most important writer after Ruskin was WALTER HORATIO PATER (1839-1894), who produced slowly and with infinite labor, and wrote in a highly elaborated, singularly beautiful, but rather too artificial style. His volume, The Renaissance, and his Greek Studies, contain the best of his criticism; but he also did some fine and practically unique work in philosophical romance, as in his Imaginary Portraits and Marius the Epicurean.

      Literary criticism and the art of the general essay were meanwhile cultivated with much success by many writers; among them, by FROUDE in his Short Studies on Great Subjects, and by SIR LESLIE STEPHEN (1832-1904), in his Hours in a Library, a collection of biographical studies of great value by reason of their learning, catholicity, and sureness of taste. SWINBURNE also wrote a great deal of literary criticism, but his enthusiasms and his prejudices alike were so violent that little confidence can be placed in his judgment. The essays, critical and general, of STEVENSON the novelist (Familiar Studies of Men and Books, Memories and Portraits, Virginibus Puerisque) may, on the contrary, be reckoned among the most important things of the class in recent literature. 

      The popularisation of knowledge, of which I have spoken, naturally led to the production of a large body of literature in which scientific subjects were so handled as to be made interesting to the intelligent general reader. Two famous scientists, JOHN TYNDALL (1820-1893) and THOMAS HENRY HUXLEY (1825-1895) proved themselves masters in the art of luminous exposition, and GRANT ALLEN (1848-1899) made a distinct mark in the same line. Similarly, theology passed into general literature, as notably in the lectures and essays of JOHN HENRY NEWMAN (1801-1890), whose influence was so wide and deep that he has been regarded as, after Carlyle, the most dominating personality in the literature of his age. One other writer, who stands apart from all the foregoing groups, has also to be mentioned, JOHN RICHARD JEFFERIES (1848-1887). In his Gamekeeper at Home, The Amateur Poacher, and other books of the same kind, he wrote of nature with rare powers of observation and description, but perhaps the most fascinating of his works is The History of my Heart, an account of his inner experiences and development.

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