6 MARCH 1880, Page 10


I N a very entertaining, though somewhat farcical article of

Mr. James Payn's on "Share Admiration in Literature," contained in the new number of the Nineteenth Century, we hear all that is to be said, or at least all that occurred to Mr. Payn to say with the double object of amusing his readers and leading a rebellion against established literary authority, on the subject of the tyranny of conventional opinion on literary subjects. Nothing can be more humorous than his account of the way he encouraged a certain young lady, real or fabulous, of his acquaintance, not to be afraid of being herself. We quote the passage as a very amusing introduction to what we have to say, though the subject appears to us confused rather than illuminated by the parenthetical introduction of Mr. Payn's hopes of a kiss. That is a touch of artless sincerity which, whatever may be its psychological value for students of Mr. Payn, does not tend even indirectly to elucidate Mr. Payn's subject. H it is brought in to prepossess the reader in favour of a young lady of so much attractiveness, it is of the nature of a bribe to corrupt the judgment. If it merely illus- trates the light Bohemian heart of the writer, perhaps that light Bohemian heart is not altogether a guarantee for the fair appreciation of the value of a sound literary standard of taste :— "'Until Caldecott's charming illustrations of it made me laugh so much,' said a young lady to me the other day, 'I confess—though I know it's very stupid of me—I never saw much fun in John Gilpin.' She evidently expected a reproof, and when I whispered in her ear, Nor I,' her lovely features assumed a look of positive enfranchise- ment.—' But am I right ?' she inquired.—' You are certainly right, my dear young lady,' said I, 'not to pretend admiration where you don't feel it ; as to liking John Gilpin, that is a matter of taste. It has, of course, simplicity to recommend it ; but in my own case, though I'm fond of fun, it has never evoked a smile. It has always seemed to me like one of Mr. Joe Miller's stories put into tedious verse.'—I really almost thought (and hoped) that that young lady would have kissed me.—`Papa always says it is a free country,' she exclaimed, but I never felt it to be the case before this moment.'—For years this beautiful and accomplished creature had locked this awful secret in her innocent breast,—that she didn't see much fun in John Gilpin.—‘ You have given me courage,' she said, to confess something else. Mx. Caldecott has just been illustrating in the same charming manner Goldsmith's Elegy on a Mad Dog, and —I'm very sorry—but I never laughed at that before, either. I have pretended to laugh, you know,' she added, hastily and apologetically, hundreds of times.'—' I don't doubt it,' I replied ; this is not such a free country as your father supposes.'—` But am I right ?'—' I say nothing about " right," ' I answered, `except that everybody has a right to his own opinion. For my part, however, I think the Mad Dog better than John Gilpin only because it is shorter.' Whether I was wrong or right in the matter is of no consequence, even to my- self ; the affection and gratitude of that young creature would more than repay me for a much greater mistake, if mistake it is. She protests that I have emancipated her from slavery. She has since talked to me about all sorts of authors, from Sir Philip Sidney to Washington Irving, in a way that would make some people's blood ran cold ; but it has no anch effect upon me,—quite the reverse. Of Irving she naïvely remarks that his strokes of humour seem to her to owe much of their success to the rarity of their occurrence ; the flashes of fun are spread over pages a dullness, which =imam them, just as a dark night is propitious to fireworks, or the atmosphere of the House of Commons, or a Court of Law, to a joke. She is often in error, no doubt, but bow bright and wholesome such talk is, as compared with the platitudes and common-places which one hears on all sides in connection with literature !"

The drift—certainly of the whole paper, and we think even of this passage—goes far beyond the mere exposure of the once too common practice of expressing a conventional admiration which the speaker does not feel. That hypocritical habit, of course, every one who cares for literature at all will desire to suppress. All sham admirations give a false em- phasis to real literary merits, if they do not, as they very generally do, breed an altogether false taste for accidents or even errors of expression, which are by chance com- bined with what is good and simple. Thus, to take an instance of which we are reminded in Mr. Payn's article, the too common sham admirations of Shakespeare tend to the special worship of his small conceits instead of his grand imagination, so that we not unfrequently hear people who do not know what to admire in Shakespeare, though they do know that they ought to admire something in him, fixing on little artificial bits, very possibly not really due to Shakespeare at all, such as the line in which Prospero tells Miranda to lift up her eyes, more in the manner in which the euphuistic Sir Piercie Shafton, of Sir Walter Scott's "Monastery," would have made a similar suggestion, than in the strong and. simple language of a great poet,—

" The fringed curtains of thine eye advance, And say what thou see'st yond'."

But it is one thing to wish to get rid of all sham admira- tions, and quite another to break down all standards as to what is really admirable, and abandon everybody to the simple and. barbarous fashion of trusting to his own individual taste.

Mr. Payn attacks the tyranny of literary conventions as if their only effect were to prevent timid people and young people from thinking their own thoughts, and saying exactly what they think, about the chief landmarks of our literature. We believe this to be a most mistaken view of the ease. We .doubt much, in the first place, whether there be, at the present day, any large amount of habitual cowardice in literary opinion, of the kind which Mr. Payn imputes to his generation. On the whole, we believe there is much more disposition now-a-days to make light of great literary reputations, than to cower before the shadows of great names, to discover, for instance, that Shakespeare is very hard reading,—which is true, by the way,—that Sir Walter Scott was a very much over-rated man,—that a fellow can't be expected to get through all that moonshine of Shelley's,—that though bits of Tennyson are awfully jolly, he spoons too much, and is too priggish with his "King Arthur," for an ordinary mortal to go very far with him,—and that Wordsworth is a dreadful old bore, whose "plain living and high thinking" are chiefly sky-blue milk-and-water. As to the young lady who was afraid to depre- ciate John Gilpin and Goldsmith's "Elegy on a Mad Dog," we have a strong disposition to believe her a dramatic invention of Mr. Payn's. The present writer, at least, has never met with any one so humble, in the disguise of the flesh and blood of this generation. Nor has Dr. Johnson's " Ram- bler " ever been mentioned in the ears of the present de- ponent, except when it has been plainly denounced as wholly unreadable by civilised man. In a word, we doubt, as a fact, whether literary authority imposes much on anybody now,

—even so much as it ought. And we stoutly maintain that it ought to have a very considerable influence on opinion,—a good deal more than we believe it has,—unless we are to lose all the educating power of a true literary tradition, and to bring our children up to form their own tastes in literature de novo, as if they were savages, without the help of any accumulated body of evidence as to what literature has arrived. at, and what it has effected. You might, indeed, almost as well encourage perfect free- dom of opinion on matters of science,—encourage young people to say, like a lad the present writer once knew, that Euclid stated his views too dogmatically, and that for himself, he felt free to doubt whether the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle

were so uniformly equal as it suited Euclid to give out,—as encourage "one or two boys in a corner" to depose from their seats the great masters of literature, and discover that the human race had been finding mares'-nests, when it made so much of them.

The truth is that authority in literature, judiciously re- vised from age to age, can do a great deal besides what it may unfortunately accomplish in the way of setting the fashion of sham admiration, which is, of course, a pure mischief. It can cartainly tell those who are willing to learn, what they ought to find, if they have the kind of capacity to find it. Moreover, we entirely deny that this function of authority need have any effect in producing professions of literary opinion to which there is nothing of individual experience to correspond. No- body scruples to say, with regard to a scientific statement, that by all accounts such and such a fact is well established, but that he himself is incompetent to judge the matter, from want either of knowledge, or of time to give it special examination. Nor is there any reason in the world why young people should not be habituated to say how far they really find it possible to enter into what they are told are the great points of a great writer, and how far they have failed to do so, whether from want of special chords of feeling, if that be the true explanation, or from sincere belief that the praise awarded by the past was more or less mistaken, and due to some falsetto vein of feeling in that past, if that be the sincere conviction of the student after a real study of his subject. Now, take one or two of the cases mentioned by Mr. Payn as examples of the tyranny of literary convention. In regard to "John Gilpin" and Goldsmith's "Elegy on a Mad Dog," no reasonable literary man ever held up either of these works as monuments of enduring fame. All that can be said of either is, that it is really good nonsense of the childlike kind. A man who can recollect what it was to be a child, who can still read the old fairy-stories with delight, and recall the vast pleasure of simple, grotesque contrasts, will enjoy them still. Indeed, no man can realise the grim Evangelicism of Olney, without feeling something more than this old, childlike delight in the reading of "John Gilpin,"—something of that sense of satisfaction in the extravagance of a string of ludicrous mishaps, which Cowper himself must have felt when he escaped from the iron controversies about grace and works, into the childlike merriment of that series of misadventures. Mr. Payn's remark that "John Gilpin" is like versified "Joe Miller" is really not worthy of him. Nothing could be less like. Joe Millers, as far as we know them, have nothing childlike in them. He might as well compare the laughter caused by the after-dinner facetke of a regular diner-out, with the laughter of a merry child. And as regards Goldsmith's "Elegy," there is a touch of humour above mere childlike fun in the verse,— " This dog and man at first were friends, But when a pique began, The dog, to gain some private ends, Went mad, and bit the man."

Still, no one would find much fault with the man or woman who honestly avowed that neither "John Gilpin" nor the "Elegy on a Mad Dog" filled them with the laughter of the heart. But take the case of Wm Austen. Mr. Payn holds up to admiration the courage of Miss Bronte's remark about Jane Austen's novels : —" I know it's very wrong, but the fact is I can't read them. They have not got story enough in them to engage my atten- tion. I don't want my blood curdled, but I like it stirred. She

strikes me as milk-and-watery, and to my taste, as dull." Now, we don't see the courage—especially in a character so ener- getic and original as Miss Bronte's—of any confession whatever of inability to enter into other kinds of literary genius. Genius of any one kind almost always involves very distinct limits in other directions, and almost always gives the courage to con-

fess those limits. But that does not make any difference in the fact that this imperious craving for a story, this desire to have the blood "stirred," if not curdled, by fiction, betrays a certain puerility- of literary feeling ; and that when it goes so far as to render any clever person insensible to the extraordinary humour and literary piquancy of such a writer as Miss Austen, it really does limit their horizon to a very unfortunate extent. Such limits may well

be expected in persons of what Miss Austen somewhere calls "strong, natural, sterling insignificance ;" but they disappoint one in Miss Broute and in Mr. Payn. One passes it over in people remarkable, to use another of Miss Austen's admirable expressions, "for want of sense, either natural or improved," but it always shocks one when a man or woman of real imagination confesses to feeling

no delight in those most wonderful and perfect of all miniature pictures. Miss Brontii was quite right in con- fessing that she could not enjoy them, just as a man whom music bores, is quite right in confessing that music bores him. But Miss Bronte was also quite right in indicating that she knew the defect was in herself, and not in Miss Austen. What any sound tradition of literary authority ought to be able to announce to the student is not, of course. that in any great work of the masters of literature any indi- vidual taste will find full satisfaction, but that those who do enjoy the highest delineations of special aspects of human feeling or human character, will find them in particular works. It is quite true that the taste for adventure renders the mild, slow, irony of English county-life intolerable to particular temperaments. But for those who can really enjoy seeing the very essence of it delineated with the fullest appreciation of its extreme pettiness of soul—of seeing the conceited, or clever, or prosy curates, the regimental or fashionable "beaux," as Miss Steele calls them in" Sense and Sensibility," the stiff, proud, magnates the frigid and insipid or vulgar and gossipy dowagers, as they were really found in the county-towns. of those days, and seeing all these etched in with the keen sarcasm of an accomplished artist, will be taught by the literary tradition of our own best authors what they may expect to find in Miss Austen. For ourselves, we believe that to revise and refine the literary tradition of ages, not to undermine and make light of it, except when, as in some cases, it is the tradition of inadequate vivacity or small insight, is the true way of helping the young to think for themselves. Tell them to begin the world of literature de navo, and they will lose twenty years of knowledge and enjoyment, before they begin to learn what to expect.