Изображения страниц

for the age of big-wigs, bagnios, and sponging houses. Such are, we think, the main merits of this very popular volume. We come now to state its defects, and to contest a few of its opinions.

In the first place, Mr. Thackeray errs grievously in the title of his volume. That professes to include solely the English Humorists; and yet we find in it the names of Congreve and Pope, neither of whose plays nor poems, with all their brilliant wit, possessed a particle of humor; and of Steele, whose absurdities have indeed made him the “ cause of humor” in others, and whose pathos is sometimes very fine, but whose attempts, whether at humor or wit, are in general lamentably poor. Had Mr. Thackeray written a book on the “ Humorists” of the scventeenth century, he would have inserted a chapter on “Butler and Milton;" Butler, for the mere wit of Hudibras, and Milton, for the puns and quibbles of the rebel angels !

Secondly, Mr. Thackeray much over-estimates the size and splendor of the galaxy he has undertaken to describe. Again and again he speaks of the wits of Queen Anne as incomparably the brightest that ever shone in Britain. We dare not countersign these statements, so long as we remember the Elizabethan period, and the names of Shakspeare, Sidney, Spenser, and Bacon; or the era of the two last Georges, and the names of Scott, Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. In none of the worthies Thackeray has described, do we find the element of true greatness. Swift was wondrously strong, but had no moral grandeur--like the fearful hybrids described in the Revelation, his power was in his tail, and with it he dealt out pain, like the torment of a scorpion when he striketh a man. Pope had rarest polish and point, but is seldom powerful, and never profound. Steele, Congreve, Prior, and Gay, were all dii minorum gentium. Addison, next to Swift, was incomparably the truest and most natural genius of his age; and yet does not appertain to the “first three.” Thackeray quotes Pope as thinking Bolingbroke so superior to all other men, that when he saw a comet he thought it was a coach come for him. And well he might, if, as many used to believe, comets be launched from, and return to that “ Other Place." But, as to his reputed powers, we recur to Lamb's inexorable principle—“Print settles all;" and renew the question Burke asked sixty years ago, “Who now reads Bolingbroke--who ever read him through ?" To him, as to all deniers, more intellectual power than he deserves has been conceded. Had the “comet” carried away his works, it would have cost the world nothing, although Mallett (the “ beggarly Scotchman " who “drew the trigger" of the blunderbuss of blasphemy) a great deal. That one man, Edmund Burke, might have been split up into a hundred Bolingbrokes; and yet no one was ever heard crying out for "A comet !" "a comet!" at his exit.

Thirdly, we quarrel with Thackeray for the manner and style in which he has chosen to issue his lecturing lucubrations. We do not know what others may think, but to us the lectures, in manner, seem elaborate imitations of the lectures on “Heroes and Hero-worship," by Thomas Carlyle. Now, the oddity and egotism which we must bear in Carlyle, we cannot bear in any imitator—not even in Thackeray. They have a fade and false air in him, and it takes all his talent to reconcile us to them.

Passing to the individual lectures, we are inclined to rank Swift as the best, as it is the first, of the series. None of Swift's former critics have so admirably represented the Irishman's emasculated hatred of man and woman-his soundless misery-his outer crust of contempt, in vain seeking to disguise the workings of his riven and tortured conscience-his disgust at the human race rushing up at last, as if on demon wings, into a denial of their Maker! We think that, as moral monsters, Swift, and that Yankee-Yahoo, Edgar Poe, must be classed together. Neither of them could believe that a race which had produced them had any link relating it to the Divine. They saw all things and beings in the vast black shadow cast by themselves.

Thackeray knows how easy, cheap, and worthless a feeling toward a man like Swift MERE anger were. He has followed, therefore, in general, the milder and surer track of pity. He mourns over, as well as blames, the maimed and blinded Cyclops, that “most miserable of all human beings." He does not know, or at least he tries not to reveal, the secret of his wretchedness, although that, so far as physical causes are con

cerned, seems to us as transparent in the case of Swift a of Pope. We confess to a greater admiration for Swift than for Pope. Swift was infinitely more a natural product than Pone; who, but for intense culture, would never have reached eminence at all. If Pope had more polish, Swift, to use De Quincey's language, was a “demon of power.” Pope used poisoned Lilliputian arrows, Swift directed at man and God a shaft like that described by old Chapman, which was

“ Shot at the sun by angry Hercules,

And into shivers by the thunder broken."

Pope did wondrously with his sparkling couplets; Swift effected greater results with his careless, rambling rhymes, which seemed mere child's play, but which were the sport of a Titan, and often of the madman in Scripture, “ casting firebrands, arrows, and death.” Pope's hatred to man seems small, selfish spite, compared to that gigantic horror and disgust at his species which pursued Swift all his life. Pope, in a thin, cracked voice, squeaks out his irritated feelings; Swift howls thern forth to earth and heaven. Pope was essentially and exquisitely small; his love is an intense burning drop; the dance of his fancy reminds you of that led by angels on the point of a needle; when in the convivial vein he tipples, it is in thimblefuls; his sarcastic sting is very sharp and small, and he takes care never to spill an infinitesimal of the venom. Like Tom Moore after him, he is a poetic Homoeopath, and, whether he try to kill you with laughter or to cure you by sense, he must deal in minute and intensely concentrated doses. When he invents, as in the “Rape of the Lock," it is a minute machinery of Sylphs and Gnomes; when he attacks, it is the dynasty of the “Dunces," that “small infantry;" when he examines works of art, it is through a microscope; when he describes love, it is that tiny tortured mimicry of the great passion, exhibited by such nauseous beings as Eloisa and Abelard; and when he translates, he hangs cymbals on the stalwart arms of old Homer, and turns his majestic pace into a

jingle of tinkling sound. Swift, on the other hand, was, if not truly great, immensely large; and even in his most careless verses you see a large black purpose-that, namely, of a

wholesale libeller, who, as he said himself, loved many men but hated man-looming through; and some of his veriest trifles make you tremble.

Thackeray, at page 15, says, "Swift's heart was English, and in England, his habits English, his logic eminently English; his statement is elaborately simple; he shuns tropes and metaphors; he has no profuse imagery." Here we deem Thackeray mistaken. Swift had an exceedingly fertile fancy, and there are more memorable sentences, each carrying an image from his pen, floating through literature, than from any other save Shakspeare's. We do not say that his imagery is always, or very often, poetical, but it is always abundant, picturesque, pointed, and new. Thackeray has been deceived by Swift's coldness of manner. He does not shout - Eureka" over every whole truth or half truth he sees. His figures are all chased in lead. This at least is true of his later manner, except when his fury at man, as in the fourth part of “Gulli. ver," is fully roused, and when, as Thackeray well says, “it is yahoo language; a monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind, tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought-furious, raging, obscene."

But in his earlier writings there is far more fire of style, as well as freshness of thought, and richness of imagery. Witness the “ Tale of a Tub." Well might he say in his old age, “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book!" It is certainly his most astonishing production. You see a

virgin mind crumbling down with its own riches." It is the wildest, wittiest, wickedest, wealthiest book of its size in British literature. Talk of Swift having no “profusion of figure !" What would Mr. Thackeray want more than he gets in the following paragraph :-" The most accomplished way of using books at present is twofold-either, first, to serve them as some men do lords-learn their titles exactly, and then brag of their acquaintance; or, secondly (which is indeed the choicer, the profounder, and the politer method,) to get a thorough insight into the index by which the whole book is governed and turned, as fishes are, by the tail. For to enter the palace of learning at the great gate, requires an expense of time and forms; therefore, men of much haste and little

cereniony are content to get in by the back-door. For the arts are all in a flying march, and therefore more easily subdued by attacking them in the rear. Thus physicians discover the state of the whole body, by consulting only what comes from behind. Thus men catch knowledge, by throwing their wit on the posteriors of a book, as boys do sparrows, by flinging salt on their tails. Thus human life is best understood by the wise man's rule of regarding the end. Thus are the sciences found, like Hercules's oxen, by tracing them backwards. Thus are old sciences unravelled, like old stockings, by beginning at the foot." We do not vouch for the elegance of all these figures; but, in fertility, the passage equals Jeremy Taylor or Shakspeare; and there are a hundred similar in the " Tale of a Tub.

That “ Swift was a pious and reverent spirit,” while in the very next paragraph we are told that he had put his “scepticism and apostacy out to hire," is rather a strange assertion. How can one who revels in filth and downright beastlinesswhose miscellanies in verse are a disgrace to human naturewho flings ordure on that Schekinah of man's body, which God's Son entered and purified—who ran through the world shrieking that "man is utterly wicked, desperate, and imbecile”—who ruined the happiness of three females—who became, in his own words, little else than " a poisoned rat in a hole”—and who mocked and gibbered at the profounder mysteries of the Christian religion, be called “pious or reverent ?” We are not the least charitable of critics; and we feel deep and solemn sorrow over the mountain of ghastly ruin which Swift at last became: but we dare not apply to him epithets which would fit a Jack Wilkes, a Mirabeau, or a Tom Paine, as well as the miserable Dean of St. Patrick's. More fitly and finely does Thackeray afterwards ask, “What had this man done? what secret remorse was rankling at his heart? what fever was boiling in him, that he should see all the world bloodshot? We view the world with our own eyes each of us, and we make from within us the world that we see. A weary heart gets no gladness out of sunshine; a selfish man is sceptical about friendship, as a man with no ear doesn't care for music. A frightful self-consciousness it must have been which looked on mankind so darkly through those eyes."

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »