Title: The Moment and Other Essays Author: Virginia Woolf * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500221h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2015 Most recent update: March 2015 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The Moment and Other Essays
The Moment: Summer's Night
On Being Ill
The Faery Queen
Sir Walter Scott. Gas at Abbotsford
Sir Walter Scott. The Antiquary
Notes on D. H. Lawrence
The Art Of Fiction
The Leaning Tower
On Rereading Novels
Genius: R. B. Haydon
The Enchanted Organ: Anne Thackeray
Two Women: Emily Davies and Lady Augusta Stanley
The Artist and Politics
In my editorial note to The Death of the Moth I wrote that Virginia Woolf "left behind her a considerable number of essays, sketches, and short stories, some unpublished and some previously published in newspapers; there are, indeed, enough to fill three or four volumes". Since then the short stories have been published in A Haunted House. The present volume contains a further selection of essays. I have followed the same method of selection as in The Death of the Moth, including some of all the different kinds of essay—the sketch, literary criticism, biographical, "political"—and not attempting to choose according to some scale of merit or importance. The consequence is that the standard of achievement seems to me as high in this volume as it was in The Common Reader or in The Death of the Moth, and it is the same in the essays which I have not included, but are sufficient to fill yet another volume.
Some of the essays are now published for the first time; others have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, the New Statesman and Nation, Time and Tide, the New York Saturday Review, New Writing. I have included two essays with the same title, Royalty; the first was commissioned, but, for obvious reasons, not published by Picture Post; the second was published in Time and Tide.
What I said with regard to the unrevised state of the essays in the editorial note to The Death of the Moth applies to the essays included in this volume. If Virginia Woolf had lived, she would have revised or rewritten nearly all of them. The essays differ considerably in their state of "finish". All which have actually been published in newspapers have been written and rewritten and revised, though there is no doubt that the process would have continued. Some of them—e.g. On Re-reading Novels—have in fact been revised and rewritten after publication with a view to inclusion in volume form. Others, e.g. The Moment, exist only in a much earlier stage, a rather rough typescript heavily corrected in handwriting. I have printed these exactly as they were left, except for punctuation and the correction of obvious mistakes, but I have done so with some hesitation, if only because the handwriting is occasionally extremely difficult to decipher.
THE MOMENT: SUMMER'S NIGHT
The night was falling so that the table in the garden among the trees grew whiter and whiter; and the people round it more indistinct. An owl, blunt, obsolete looking, heavy weighted, crossed the fading sky with a black spot between its claws. The trees murmured. An aeroplane hummed like a piece of plucked wire. There was also, on the roads, the distant explosion of a motor cycle, shooting further and further away down the road. Yet what composed the present moment? If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver. If you are old, the past lies upon the present, like a thick glass, making it waver, distorting it. All the same, everybody believes that the present is something, seeks out the different elements in this situation in order to compose the truth of it, the whole of it.
To begin with: it is largely composed of visual and of sense impressions. The day was very hot. After heat, the surface of the body is opened, as if all the pores were open and everything lay exposed, not sealed and contracted, as in cold weather. The air wafts cold on the skin under one's clothes. The soles of the feet expand in slippers after walking on hard roads. Then the sense of the light sinking back into darkness seems to be gently putting out with a damp sponge the colour in one's own eyes. Then the leaves shiver now and again, as if a ripple of irresistible sensation ran through them, as a horse suddenly ripples its skin.
But this moment is also composed of a sense that the legs of the chair are sinking through the centre of the earth, passing through the rich garden earth; they sink, weighted down. Then the sky loses its colour perceptibly and a star here and there makes a point of light. Then changes, unseen in the day, coming in succession seem to make an order evident. One becomes aware that we are spectators and also passive participants in a pageant. And as nothing can interfere with the order, we have nothing to do but accept, and watch. Now little sparks, which are not steady, but fitful as if somebody were doubtful, come across the field. Is it time to light the lamp, the farmers' wives are saying: can I see a little longer? The lamp sinks down; then it burns up. All doubt is over. Yes the time has come in all cottages, in all farms, to light the lamps. Thus then the moment is laced about with these weavings to and fro, these inevitable downsinkings, flights, lamp lightings.
But that is the wider circumference of the moment. Here in the centre is a knot of consciousness; a nucleus divided up into four heads, eight legs, eight arms, and four separate bodies. They are not subject to the law of the sun and the owl and the lamp. They assist it. For sometimes a hand rests on the table; sometimes a leg is thrown over a leg. Now the moment becomes shot with the extraordinary arrow which people let fly from their mouths—when they speak.
"He'll do well with his hay."
The words let fall this seed, but also, coming from that obscure face, and the mouth, and the hand so characteristically holding the cigarette, now hit the mind with a wad, then explode like a scent suffusing the whole dome of the mind with its incense, flavour; let fall, from their ambiguous envelope, the self-confidence of youth, but also its urgent desire, for praise, and assurance; if they were to say: "But you're no worse looking than many—you're no different—people don't mark you out to laugh at you": that he should be at once so cock-ahoop and so ungainly makes the moment rock with laughter, and with the malice that comes from overlooking other people's motives; and seeing what they keep hid; and so that one takes sides; he will succeed; or no he won't; and then again, this success, will it mean my defeat; or won't it? All this shoots through the moment, makes it quiver with malice and amusement; and the sense of watching and comparing; and the quiver meets the shore, when the owl flies out, and puts a stop to this judging, this overseeing, and with our wings spread, we too fly, take wing, with the owl, over the earth and survey the quietude of what sleeps, folded, slumbering, arm stretching in the vast dark and sucking its thumb too; the amorous and the innocent; and a sigh goes up. Could we not fly too, with broad wings and with softness; and be all one wing; all embracing, all gathering, and these boundaries, these pryings over hedge into hidden compartments of different colours be all swept into one colour by the brush of the wing; and so visit in splendour, augustly, peaks; and there lie exposed, bare, on the spine, high up, to the cold light of the moon rising, and when the moon rises, single, solitary, behold her, one, eminent over us?
Ah, yes, if we could fly, fly, fly...Here the body is gripped; and shaken; and the throat stiffens; and the nostrils tingle; and like a rat shaken by a terrier one sneezes; and the whole universe is shaken; mountains, snows, meadows; moon; higgledly, piggledy, upside down, little splinters flying; and the head is jerked up, down. "Hay fever—what a noise!—there's no cure. Except spending hay time on a boat. Perhaps worse than the disease, though that's what a man did—crossing and recrossing, all the summer."
Issuing from a white arm, a long shape, lying back, in a film of black and white, under the tree, which, down sweeping, seems a part of that curving, that flowing, the voice, with its ridicule and its sense, reveals to the shaken terrier its own insignificance. No longer part of the snow; no part of the mountain; not in the least venerable to other human beings; but ridiculous; a little accident; a thing to be laughed at; discriminated out; seen clearly cut out, sneezing, sneezing, judged and compared. Thus into the moment steals self-assertion; ah, the sneeze again; the desire to sneeze with conviction; masterfully; making oneself heard; felt; if not pitied, then somebody of importance; perhaps to break away and go. But no; the other shape has sent from its arrow another fine binding thread, "Shall I fetch my Vapex?" She, the observant, the discriminating, who keeps in mind always other instances, so that there is nothing singular in any special case—who refuses to be jumped into extravagance; and so sceptical withal; cannot believe in miracles; sees the vanity of effort there; perhaps then it would be well to try here; yet if she isolates cases from the mists of hugeness, sees what is there all the more definitely; refuses to be bamboozled; yet in this definite discrimination shows some amplitude. That is why the moment becomes harder, is intensified, diminished, begins to be stained by some expressed personal juice; with the desire to be loved, to be held close to the other shape; to put off the veil of darkness and see burning eyes.
Then a light is struck; in it appears a sunburnt face, lean, blue-eyed, and the arrow flies as the match goes out:
"He beats her every Saturday; from boredom, I should say; not drink; there's nothing else to do."
The moment runs like quicksilver on a sloping aboard into the cottage parlour; there are the tea things on the table; the hard windsor chairs; tea caddies on the shelf for ornament; the medal under a glass shade; vegetable steam curling from the pot; two children crawling on the floor; and Liz comes in and John catches her a blow on the side of her head as she slopes past him, dirty, with her hair loose and one hairpin sticking out about to fall. And she moans in a chronic animal way; and thy children look up and then make a whistling noise to imitate the engine which they trail across the flags; and John sits himself down with a thump at the table and carves a hunk of bread and munches because there is nothing to be done. A steam rises from his cabbage patch. Let us do something then, something to end this horrible moment, this plausible glistening moment that reflects in its smooth sides this intolerable kitchen, this squalor; this woman moaning; and the rattle of the toy on the flags, and the man munching. Let us smash it by breaking a match. There—snap.
And then comes the low of the cows in the field; and another cow to the left answers; and all the cows seem to be moving tranquilly across the field and the owl flutes off its watery bubble. But the sun is deep below the earth. The trees are growing heavier, blacker; no order is perceptible; there is no sequence in these cries, these movements; they come from no bodies; they are cries to the left and to the right. Nothing can be seen. We can only see ourselves as outlines, cadaverous, sculpturesque. And it is more difficult for the voice to carry through this dark. The dark has stripped the fledge from the arrow—the vibrations that rise red shiver as it passes through us.
Then comes the terror, the exultation; the power to rush out unnoticed, alone; to be consumed; to be swept away to become a rider on the random wind; the tossing wind; the trampling and neighing wind; the horse with the blown-back mane; the tumbling, the foraging; he who gallops for ever, nowhither travelling, indifferent; to be part of the eyeless dark, to be rippling and streaming, to feel the glory run molten up the spine, down the limbs, making the eyes glow, burning, bright, and penetrate the buffeting waves of the wind.
"Everything's sopping wet. It's the dew off the grass. Time to go in."
And then one shape heaves and surges and rises, and we pass, trailing coats, down the path towards the lighted windows, the dim glow behind the branches, and so enter the door, and the square draws its lines round us, and here is a chair, a table, glasses, knives, and thus we are boxed and housed, and will soon require a draught of soda-water and to find something to read in bed.
ON BEING ILL
First published in 1930
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no; with a few exceptions De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust—literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philosopher's turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism. The public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot; they would complain that there was no love in it—wrongly however, for illness often takes on the disguise of love, and plays the same odd tricks. It invests certain faces with divinity, sets us to wait, hour after hour, with pricked ears for the creaking of a stair, and wreathes the faces of the absent (plain enough in health, Heaven knows) with a new significance, while the mind concocts a thousand legends and romances about them for which it has neither time nor taste in health. Finally, to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable. For who of English birth can take liberties with the language? To us it is a sacred thing and therefore doomed to die, unless the Americans, whose genius is so much happier in the making of new words than in the disposition of the old, will come to our help and set the springs aflow. Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more primitive, more sensual, more obscene, but a new hierarchy of the passions; love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica; sleeplessness play the part of villain, and the hero become a white liquid with a sweet taste—that mighty Prince with the moths' eyes and the feathered feet, one of whose names is Chloral.
But to return to the invalid. "I am in bed with influenza"—but what does that convey of the great experience; how the world has changed its shape; the tools of business grown remote; the sounds of festival become romantic like a merry-go-round heard across far fields; and friends have changed, some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed to the squatness of toads, while the whole landscape of life lies remote and fair, like the shore seen from a ship far out at sea, and he is now exalted on a peak and needs no help from man or God, and now grovels supine on the floor glad of a kick from a housemaid—the experience cannot be imparted and, as is always the way with these dumb things, his own suffering serves but to wake memories in his friends' minds of their influenzas, their aches and pains which went unwept last February, and now cry aloud, desperately, clamorously, for the divine relief of sympathy. But sympathy we cannot have. Wisest Fate says no. If her children, weighted as they already are with sorrow, were to take on them that burden too, adding in imagination other pains to their own, buildings would cease to rise; roads would peter out into grassy tracks; there would be an end of music and of painting; one great sigh alone would rise to Heaven, and the only attitudes for men and women would be those of horror and despair. As it is, there is always some little distraction—an organ grinder at the corner of the hospital, a shop with book or trinket to decoy one past the prison or the workhouse, some absurdity of cat or dog to prevent one from turning the old beggar's hieroglyphic of misery into volumes of sordid suffering; and thus the vast effort of sympathy which those barracks of pain and discipline, those dried symbols of sorrow, ask us to exert on their behalf, is uneasily shuffled off for another time. Sympathy nowadays is dispensed chiefly by the laggards and failures, women for the most part (in whom the obsolete exists so strangely side by side with anarchy and newness), who, having dropped out of the race, have time to spend upon fantastic and unprofitable excursions; C. L. for example, who, sitting by the stale sickroom fire, builds up, with touches at once sober and imaginative, the nursery fender, the loaf, the lamp, barrel organs in the street, and all the simple old wives' tales of pinafores and escapades; A. R., the rash, the magnanimous, who, if you fancied a giant tortoise to solace you or a theorbo to cheer you, would ransack the markets of London and procure them somehow, wrapped in paper, before the end of the days; the frivolous K. T., who, dressed in silks and feathers, powdered and painted (which takes time too) as if for a banquet of Kings and Queens, spends her whole brightness in the gloom of the sick room, and makes the medicine bottles ring and the flames shoot up with her gossip and her mimicry. But such follies have had their day; civilisation points to a different goal; and then what place will there be for the tortoise and the theorbo?
There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy for example—we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds' feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretence must be kept up and the effort renewed—to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together by day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.
The first impression of that extraordinary spectacle is strangely overcoming. Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares. Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it!—this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away—this endless activity, with the waste of Heaven knows how many million horse power of energy, has been left to work its will year in year out. The fact seems to call for comment and indeed for censure. Ought not some one to write to The Times? Use should be made of it. One should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house. But watch a little longer and another emotion drowns the stirrings of civic ardour. Divinely beautiful it is also divinely heartless. Immeasurable resources are used for some purpose which has nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit. If we were all laid prone, stiff, still the sky would be experimenting with its blues and its golds. Perhaps then, if we look down at something very small and close and familiar, we shall find sympathy. Let us examine the rose. We have seen it so often flowering in bowls, connected it so often with beauty in its prime, that we have forgotten how it stands, still and steady, throughout an entire afternoon in the earth. It preserves a demeanour of perfect dignity and self-possession. The suffusion of its petals is of inimitable rightness. Now perhaps one deliberately falls; now all the flowers, the voluptuous purple, the creamy, in whose waxen flesh the spoon has left a swirl of cherry juice; gladioli; dahlias; lilies, sacerdotal, ecclesiastical; flowers with prim cardboard collars tinged apricot and amber, all gently incline their heads to the breeze—all, with the exception of the heavy sunflower, who proudly acknowledges the sun at midday and perhaps at midnight rebuffs the moon. There they stand; and it is of these, the stillest, the most self-sufficient of all things that human beings have made companions; these that symbolise their passions, decorate their festivals, and lie (as if they knew sorrow) upon the pillows of the dead. Wonderful to relate, poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting. That snowfield of the mind, where man has not trodden, is visited by the cloud, kissed by the falling petal, as, in another sphere, it is the great artists, the Miltons and the Popes, who console not by their thought of us but by their forgetfulness.
Meanwhile, with the heroism of the ant or the bee, however indifferent the sky or disdainful the flowers, the army of the upright marches to battle. Mrs. Jones catches her train. Mr. Smith mends his motor. The cows are driven home to be milked. Men thatch the roof. The dogs bark. The rooks, rising in a net, fall in a net upon the elm trees. The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably. It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out. Even so, when the whole earth is sheeted and slippery, some undulation, some irregularity of surface will mark the boundary of an ancient garden, and there, thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn. But with the hook of life still in us still we must wriggle. We cannot stiffen peaceably into glassy mounds. Even the recumbent spring up at the mere imagination of frost about the toes and stretch out to avail themselves of the universal hope—Heaven, Immortality. Surely, since men have been wishing all these ages, they will have wished something into existence; there will be some green isle for the mind to rest on even if the foot cannot plant itself there. The co-operative imagination of mankind must have drawn some firm outline. But no. One opens the Morning Post and reads the Bishop of Lichfield on Heaven. One watches the church-goers file into those gallant temples where, on the bleakest day, in the wettest fields, lamps will be burning, bells will be ringing, and however the autumn leaves may shuffle and the winds sigh outside, hopes and desires will be changed to beliefs and certainties within. Do they look serene? Are their eyes filled with the light of their supreme conviction? Would one of them dare leap straight into Heaven off Beachy Head? None but a simpleton would ask such questions; the little company of believers lags and drags and strays. The mother is worn; the father tired. As for imagining Heaven, they have no time. Heaven-making must be left to the imagination of the poets. Without their help we can but trifle—imagine Pepys in Heaven, adumbrate little interviews with celebrated people on tufts of thyme, soon fall into gossip about such of our friends as have stayed in Hell, or, worse still, revert again to earth and choose, since there is no harm in choosing, to live over and over, now as man, now as woman, as sea-captain, or court lady, as Emperor or farmer's wife, in splendid cities and on remote moors, at the time of Pericles or Arthur, Charlemagne or George the Fourth—to live and live till we have lived out those embryo lives which attend about us in early youth until "I" suppressed them. But "I" shall not, if wishing can alter it, usurp Heaven too, and condemn us, who have played our parts here as William or Alice, to remain William or Alice for ever. Left to ourselves we speculate thus carnally. We need the poets to imagine for us. The duty of Heaven-making should be attached to the office of the Poet Laureate.
Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure—arches, towers, and battlements—stands firm on its foundations. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not the book for influenza, nor The Golden Bowl nor Madame Bovary. On the other hand, with responsibility shelved and reason in the abeyance—for who is going to exact criticism from an invalid or sound sense from the bed-ridden?—other tastes assert themselves; sudden, fitful, intense. We rifle the poets of their flowers. We break off a line or two and let them open in the depths of the mind:
and oft at eve
Visits the herds along the twilight meadows
wandering in thick flocks along the mountains
Shepherded by the slow unwilling wind.
Or there is a whole three volume novel to be mused over in a verse of Hardy's or a sentence of La Bruyère. We dip in Lamb's Letters—some prose writers are to be read as poets—and find "I am a sanguinary murderer of time, and would kill him inchmeal just now. But the snake is vital", and who shall explain the delight? or open Rimbaud and read:
O saisons o chateaux
Quelle ame est sans défauts?
and who shall rationalise the charm? In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this that, and the other—a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause—which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour. Foreigners, to whom the tongue is strange, have us at a disadvantage. The Chinese must know the sound of Antony and Cleopatra better than we do.
Rashness is one of the properties of illness—outlaws that we are—and it is rashness that we need in reading Shakespeare. It is not that we should doze in reading him, but that, fully conscious and aware, his fame intimidates and bores, and all the views of all the critics dull in us that thunder-clap of conviction which, if an illusion, is still so helpful an illusion, so prodigious a pleasure, so keen a stimulus in reading the great. Shakespeare is getting flyblown; a paternal government might well forbid writing about him, as they put his monument at Stratford beyond the reach of scribbling fingers. With all this buzz of criticism about, one may hazard one's conjectures privately, make one's notes in the margin; but, knowing that someone has said it before, or said it better, the zest is gone. Illness, in its kingly sublimity, sweeps all that aside and leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself. What with his overweening power and our overweening arrogance, the barriers go down, the knots run smooth, the brain rings and resounds with Lear or Macbeth, and even Coleridge himself squeaks like a distant mouse.
But enough of Shakespeare—let us turn to Augustus Hare. There are people who say that even illness does not warrant these transitions; that the author of The Story of Two Noble Lives is not the peer of Boswell; and if we assert that short of the best in literature we like the worst—it is mediocrity that is hateful—will have none of that either. So be it. The law is on the side of the normal. But for those who suffer a slight rise of temperature the names of Hare and Waterford and Canning ray out as beams of benignant lustre. Not, it is true, for the first hundred pages or so. There, as so often in these fat volumes, we flounder and threaten to sink in a plethora of aunts and uncles. We have to remind ourselves that there is such a thing as atmosphere; that the masters themselves often keep us waiting intolerably while they prepare our minds for whatever it may be—the surprise, or the lack of surprise. So Hare, too, takes his time; the charm steals upon us imperceptibly; by degrees we become almost one of the family, yet not quite, for our sense of the oddity of it all remains, and share the family dismay when Lord Stuart leaves the room—there was a ball going forward—and is next heard of in Iceland. Parties, he said, bored him—such were English aristocrats before marriage with intellect had adulterated the fine singularity of their minds. Parties bore them; they are off to Iceland. Then Beckford's mania for castle building attacked him; he must lift a French château across the Channel, and erect pinnacles and towers to use as servants' bedrooms at vast expense, upon the borders of a crumbling cliff, too, so that the housemaids saw their brooms swimming down the Solent, and Lady Stuart was much distressed, but made the best of it and began, like the high-born lady that she was, planting evergreens in the face of ruin. Meanwhile the daughters, Charlotte and Louisa, grew up in their incomparable loveliness, with pencils in their hands, for ever sketching, dancing, flirting, in a cloud of gauze. They are not very distinct it is true. For life then was not the life of Charlotte and Louisa. It was the life of families, of groups. It was a web, a net, spreading wide and enmeshing every sort of cousin, dependant, and old retainer. Aunts—Aunt Caledon, Aunt Mexborough—grandmothers—Granny Stuart, Granny Hardwicke—cluster in chorus, and rejoice and sorrow and eat Christmas dinner together, and grow very old and remain very upright, and sit in hooded chairs cutting flowers it seems out of coloured paper. Charlotte married Canning and went to India; Louisa married Lord Waterford and went to Ireland. Then letters begin to cross vast spaces in slow sailing ships and communication becomes still more protracted and verbose, and there seems no end to the space and the leisure of those early Victorian days, and faiths are lost and the life of Hedley Vicars revives them; aunts catch cold but recover; cousins marry; there are the Irish famine and the Indian Mutiny, and both sisters remain to their great, but silent, grief without children to come after them. Louisa, dumped down in Ireland with Lord Waterford at the hunt all day, was often very lonely; but she stuck to her post, visited the poor, spoke words of comfort ("I am sorry indeed to hear of Anthony Thompson's loss of mind, or rather of memory; if, however, he can understand sufficiently to trust solely in our Saviour, he has enough") and sketched and sketched. Thousands of notebooks were filled with pen and ink drawings of an evening, and then the carpenter stretched sheets for her and she designed frescoes for schoolrooms, had live sheep into her bedroom, draped gamekeepers in blankets, painted Holy Families in abundance, until the great Watts exclaimed that here was Titian's peer and Raphael's master! At that Lady Waterford laughed (she had a generous, benignant sense of humour); and said that she was nothing but a sketcher; had scarcely had a lesson in her life—witness her angel's wings scandalously unfinished. Moreover, there was her father's house forever falling into the sea; she must shore it up; must entertain her friends; must fill her days with all sorts of charities, till her Lord came home from hunting, and then, at midnight often, she would sketch him with his knightly face half hidden in a bowl of soup, sitting with her sketch-book under a lamp beside him. Off he would ride again, stately as a crusader, to hunt the fox, and she would wave to him and think each time, what if this should be the last? And so it was, that winter's morning; his horse stumbled; he was killed. She knew it before they told her, and never could Sir John Leslie forget, when he ran downstairs on the day of the burial, the beauty of the great lady standing to see the hearse depart, nor, when he came back, how the curtain, heavy, mid-Victorian, plush perhaps, was all crushed together where she had grasped it in her agony.
THE FAERY QUEEN
The Faery Queen, it is said, has never been read to the end; no one has ever wished Paradise Lost, it is said, a word longer; and these remarks however exaggerated probably give pleasure, like a child's laugh at a ceremony, because they express something we secretly feel and yet try to hide. Dare we then at this time of day come out with the remark that The Faery Queen is a great poem? So one might say early rising, cold bathing, abstention from wine and tobacco are good; and if one said it, a blank look would steal over the company as they made haste to agree and then to lower the tone of the conversation. Yet it is true. Here are some general observations made by one who has gone through the experience, and wishes to urge others, who may be hiding their yawns and their polite boredom, to the same experience.
The first essential is, of course, not to read The Faery Queen. Put it off as long as possible. Grind out politics; absorb science; wallow in fiction; walk about London; observe the crowds; calculate the loss of life and limb; rub shoulders with the poor in markets; buy and sell; fix the mind firmly on the financial columns of the newspapers, weather; on the crops; on the fashions. At the mere mention of chivalry shiver and snigger; detest allegory; revel in direct speech; adore all the virtues of the robust, the plain spoken; and then, when the whole being is red and brittle as sandstone in the sun, make a dash for The Faery Queen and give yourself up to it.
But reading poetry is a complex art. The mind has many layers, and the greater the poem the more of these are roused and brought into action. They seem, too, to be in order. The faculty we employ upon poetry at the first reading is sensual; the eye of the mind opens. And Spenser rouses the eye softly and brilliantly with his green trees, his pearled women, his crested and plumed knights. (Then we need to use our sympathies, not the strong passions, but the simple wish to go with our knight and his lady to feel their heat and cold, and their thirst and hunger.) And then we need movement. Their figures, as they pass along the grass track, must reach a hovel or a palace or find a man in weeds reading his book. That too is gratified. And then living thus with our eyes, with our legs and arms, with the natural quiet feelings of liking and disliking tolerantly and gently excited, we realise a more complex desire that all these emotions should combine. There must be a pervading sense of belief, or much of our emotion will be wasted. The tree must be part of the knight; the knight of the lady. All these states of Mind must support one another, and the strength of the poem will come from the combination, just as it will fail if at any point the poet loses belief.
But it may be said, when a poet is dealing with Faery Land and the supernatural people who live there, belief can only be used' in a special sense. We do not believe in the existence of giants and Ogres, but in something that the poet himself believed them to represent. What then was Spenser's belief, when he wrote his poem? He has himself declared that the "general intention and meaning" of The Faery Queen was "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and noble discipline". It would be absurd to pretend that we are more than intermittently conscious of the poet's meaning. Yet as we read, we half consciously have the sense of some pattern hanging in the sky, so that without referring any of the words to a special place, they have that meaning which comes from their being parts of a whole design, and not an isolated fragment of unrelated loveliness. The mind is being perpetually enlarged by the power of suggestion. Much more is imagined than is stated. And it is due to this quality that the poem changes, with time, so that after four hundred years it still corresponds to something which we, who are momentarily in the flesh, feel at the moment.
The question asks itself, then, how Spenser, himself imprisoned in so many impediments of circumstance, remote from us in time, in speech, in convention, yet seems to be talking about things that are important to us too?. Compare, for example, his perfect gentleman with Tennyson's Arthur. Already, much in Tennyson's pattern is unintelligible; an easy butt for satire. Among living writers again, there is none who is able to display a typical figure. Each seems limited to one room of the human dwelling. But with Spenser, though here in this department of our being, we seem able to unlock the door and walk about. We miss certain intensities and details; but on the other hand we are uncabined. We are allowed to give scope to a number of interests, delights, curiosities, and loves that find no satisfaction in the poetry of our own time. But though it would be easy to frame a reason for this and to generalise about the decay of faith, the rise of machines, the isolation of the human being, let us, however, work from the opposite point of view. In reading The Faery Queen the first thing, we said, was that the mind has different layers. It brings one into play and then another. The desire of the eye, the desire of the body, desires for rhythm, movement, the desire for adventure—each is gratified. And this gratification depends upon the poet's own mobility. He is alive in all his parts. He scarcely seems to prefer one to another. We are reminded of the old myth of the body which has many organs, and the lesser and the obscure are as important as the kingly and important.
Here at any rate the poet's body seems all alive. A fearlessness, a simplicity that is like the movement of a naked savage possesses him. He is not merely a thinking brain; he is a feeling body, a sensitive heart. He has hands and feet, and, as he says himself, a natural chastity, so that some things are judged unfit for the pen. "My chaster muse for shame doth blush to write." In short, when we read The Faery Queen, we feel that the whole being is drawn upon, not merely a separate part.
To say this is to say that the conventions that Spenser uses are not enough to cut us off from the inner meaning. And the reason soon makes itself apparent. When we talk of the modern distaste for allegory, we are only saying that we prefer our qualities in another form. The novelist uses allegory; that is to say, when he wishes to expound his characters, he makes them think; Spenser impersonated his psychology. Thus if the novelist now wished to convey his hero's gloom, he would tell us his thoughts; Spenser creates a figure called Despair. He has the fullest sense of what sorrow is. But he typifies it; he creates a dwelling, an old man who comes out of the house and says I cannot tell; and then the figure of Despair with his beautiful elegy. Instead of being prisoned in one breast we are shown the outer semblance. He is working thus on a larger, freer, more depersonalised scale. By making the passions into people, he gives them an amplitude. And who shall say that this is the less natural, the less realistic? For the most exact observer has to leave much of his people's minds obscure.
Once we get him out of his private mythology, there is no mythology which can personify his actions. We wish to convey delight and have to describe an actual garden, here and now; Spenser at once calls up a picture of nymphs dancing, youth, maidens crowned. And yet it is not pictorial merely. Nothing is more refreshing, nothing serves more to sting and revive us than the spray of fresh hard words, little colloquialisms, tart green words that might have been spoken at dinner, joining in easily with the more stately tribe. But such externality is impossible to us, because we have lost our power to create symbols. Spenser's ability to use despair in person depends on his power to create a world in which such a figure draws natural breath, living breath. He has his dwelling at the centre of a universe which offers him the use of dragons, knights, magic; and all the company that exist about them; and flowers and dawn and sunset. All this was still just within his reach. He could believe in it, his public could believe in it, sufficiently to make it serviceable. It was, of course, just slipping from his grasp. That is obvious from his own words: His poem, he says, will be called the abundance of an idle brain. His language, too, oddly compounded of the high flown and the vernacular, was just then at the turn. On the one hand we have the old smooth conventions—Tithonus, Cynthia, Phoebus, and the rest; on the other fry and rascal and losel, the common speech that was current on the lips of the women at the door. He was not asking the reader to adopt an unnatural pose; only to think poetically. And the writer's faith is still effective. We are removed four hundred years from Spenser; and the effort to think back into his mood requires some adjustment, some oblivion; but there is nothing false in what is to be done; it is easier to read Spenser than to read William Morris.
The true difficulty lies elsewhere. It lies in the fact that the poem is a meditation, not a dramatisation. At no point is Spenser under the necessity of bringing his characters to the surface; they lack the final embodiment which is forced so drastically upon the playwright. They sink back into the poet's mind and thus lack definition. He is talking about them; they are not using their own words. Hence the indistinctness which leads, as undoubtedly it does lead, to monotony. The verse becomes for a time a rocking horse; swaying up and down; a celestial rocking horse, whose pace is always rhythmical and seemly, but lulling, soporofic. It sings us to sleep; it lulls the teeth of the wind. On no other terms, however, could we be kept in being. And to compensate we have the quality of that mind; the sense that we are confined in one continuous consciousness, which is Spenser's; that he has saturated and enclosed this world, that we live in a great bubble blown from the poet's brain. Yet if it ignores our own marks, houses, chimneys, roads, the multitudinous details which serve like signposts or features to indicate to us where our emotions lie, it is not a private world of fantasy. Here are the qualities that agitate living people at the moment; spite, greed, jealousy, ugliness, poverty, pain; Spenser in his poet's castle was as acutely aware of the rubs and tumbles of life as the living, but by virtue of his poetry blew them away into the higher air. So we feel not shut in, but freed; and take our way in a world which gives expression to sensation more vigorously, more exactly than we can manage for ourselves in the flesh. It is-a world of astonishing physical brilliance and intensity; sharpened, intensified as objects are in a clearer air; such as we see them, not in dreams, but when all the faculties are alert and vigorous; when the stuffing and the detail have been brushed aside; and we see the bone and the symmetry; now in a landscape, in Ireland or in Greece; and now when we think of ourselves, under the more intense ray of poetry; under its sharper, its lovelier light.
Written in August 1937
The four great plays through which Congreve is immortal take up very little space, and can be bought very cheaply; but they can be seen very seldom, and to read them, silently and in solitude, is to do them an injustice. The best way to repair that injustice is to consider them with the author's help more critically, if more coldly, than we are able when the words are embodied on the stage. Congreve, the man of mystery, the man of superb genius who ceased to use his genius at his height, was also, as any reader may guess from almost any page, of the class of writers who are not so entirely submerged in their gift but that they can watch it curiously and to some extent guide it even when they are possessed by it. Whatever he has to say in a letter, in a dedication, in a prologue about his art is worth listening to with all our ears. Let us then put to him some of the questions that the remembrance of his plays has left over in the mind before we allow the Tattles and the Foresights, the Wishforts and the Millamants to sweep us off our feet.
First there is the old grievance which, though it sounds elementary, must always have its say: the grievance that is summed up in the absurd names he gives his characters—Vainlove, Fondlewife, and the rest—as if we were back again in the age of mummer and cart, when one humour to one character was all the audience could grasp or the actor express. To that he replies, "...the distance of the stage requires the figures represented to be something larger than the life", a warning to the reader to suppress the desire for certain subtleties which the playwright cannot satisfy, a reminder that the imponderable suggestions which come together on silent feet in fiction are denied the playwright. He must speak; the speaking voice is the only instrument allowed him. That introduces a second question: they must speak, but why so artificially? Men and women were never so witty as he makes them; they never speak so aptly, so instantly, and with such a wealth of figure and imagery as he would have us believe. And to that he replies, "I believe if a poet should steal a dialogue of any length, from the extempore discourse of the two wittiest men upon earth, he would find the scene but coldly receiv'd by the town". People on the stage must be larger than life because they are further from us than in the book; and cleverer than life because if he set down their actual words we should be bored to distraction. Every writer has his selection to make; his artifice to enforce; these are the playwright's. These are the methods by which he puts us in the frame of mind needed for his purpose.
Still there remains another grievance which is not so elementary nor so easily laid to rest; and that is, of course, the plot. Who can remember the plot when the book is shut? Who has not been teased by its intricacies while the book is open? As everybody is agreed something must happen, and it matters very little what happens if it serves to make the characters more real, or more profound, than they would otherwise have been; a plot should put the characters on the rack and show them thus extended. But what are we to say when the plot merely teases and distorts the character, and distracts us from any more profound enjoyment than that of asking who is behind that door, who is behind that mask? To this Congreve the critic gives us no satisfactory answer. Sometimes, as in the preface to The Double Dealer, he prides himself that he has maintained "the unities of the drama". But a certain doubt declares itself elsewhere. In the dedication to The Way of the World he envies Terence. Terence, he points out, had "great advantages to encourage his undertaking for he built most on the foundations of Menander; his plots were generally modelled and his characters ready drawn to his hand". Either then, one must conclude, the old weather-worn plots which slip into the mind so smoothly that we scarcely notice them—the legendary, the prehistoric—are the only tolerable ones, or we are forced to suppose that the plot-making genius is so seldom combined with the genius for creating character that we must allow even Shakespeare to fail here—even Shakespeare sometimes lets the plot dictate to the character; suffers the story to drag the character out of its natural orbit. And Congreve, who had not Shakespeare's miraculous fecundity, who could not cover up the farfetched and the mechanical with the abundance of his imagination and the splendour of his poetry, fails here. The character is squeezed to fit the situation; the machine has set its iron stamp upon live flesh and blood.
But, now that we have dismissed the questions that hang about an unopened book, let us submit ourselves to the dramatist in action. The dramatist is in action from the very first word on the very first page. There are no preliminaries, no introductions; the curtain rises and they are in the thick of it. Never was any prose so quick. Miraculously pat, on the spot, each speaker caps the last, without fumbling or hesitation; their minds are full charged; it seems as if they had to rein themselves in, bursting with energy as they are, alive and alert to their finger tips. It is we who fumble, make irrelevant observations, notice the chocolate or the cinnamon, the sword or the muslin, until the illusion takes hold of us, and what with the rhythm of the speech and the indescribable air of tension, of high breeding that pervades it, the world of the stage becomes the real world and the other, outside the play, but the husk and cast-off clothing. To attempt to reduce this first impression to words is as futile as to explain a physical sensation—the slap of a wave, the rush of wind, the scent of a bean field. It is conveyed by the curl of a phrase on the ear; by speed; by stillness. It is as impossible to analyse Congreve's prose as to distinguish the elements—the bark of a dog, the song of a bird, the drone of the branches—which make the summer air. But then, since words have meaning, we notice here a sudden depth beneath the surface, a meaning not grasped but felt, and then come to realise something not merely dazzling in this world, but natural, for all its wit; even familiar, and traditional. It has a coarseness, a humour something like Shakespeare's; a toppling imagination that heaps image upon image; a lightning swiftness of apprehension that snatches a dozen meanings and compacts them into one.
And yet it is not Shakespeare's world; for just as we think, tossed up on the crest of some wonderful extravagance of humour, to be swept into poetry we come slap against hard common sense, and realise that here is a different combination of elements from the poet's. There is tragedy—Lady Touchwood and Maskwell in The Double Dealer are not comic figures—but when tragedy and comedy collide it is comedy that wins. Lady Touchwood seizes her dagger; but she drops it. A moment more and it would have been too late. Already she has passed from prose to rant. Already we feel not that the scene is ridiculous, for there is passion there; but that it is unsafe. Congreve has lost his control, his fine balance is upset; he feels the ground tremble beneath him. Mr. Brisk's comment, "This is all very surprising, let me perish", is the appropriate one. With that he finds his feet and withdraws.
The world that we have entered, then, in Congreve's comedies is not the world of the elemental passions. It is an enclosure surrounded with the four walls of a living room. Ladies and gentlemen go through their figures with their tongues to the measure dictated by common sense as precisely as they dance the minuet with their feet; but the image has only a superficial rightness. We have only to compare Congreve's comedy with Goldsmith's or with Sheridan's, let alone with Wilde's, to be aware that if, to distinguish him from the Elizabethans, we confine him to a room, not a world, that room is not the drawing-room of the eighteenth century, still less is it the drawing-room of the nineteenth century. Drays roar on the cobbles beneath; the brawling of street hucksters and tavern rioters comes in at the open windows. There is a coarseness of language, an extravagance of humour, and a freedom of manners which cast us back to the Elizabethans. Yet it is in a drawing-room, surrounded by all the fopperies and refinements of the most sophisticated society in the world, that these ladies and gentlemen speak so freely, drink so deeply, and smell so strong. It is the contrast, perhaps, that makes us more aware of the coarseness of the Restoration dramatists than of the Elizabethan. A great lady who spits on the floor offends where a fishwife merely amuses. And perhaps it was for this reason that Congreve incurred first the majestic censure of Dr. Johnson and then the more supercilious contempt of the Victorians who neglected, Sir Edmund Gosse informs us, either to read him or to act him. More conscious than we are of the drawing-room, they were quicker repelled perhaps by any violation of its decencies.
But however we may account for the change, to reach The Way of the World through The Old Bachelor, The Double Dealer, and Love for Love is to become more and more at loggerheads with Dr. Johnson's dictum:
It is acknowledged, with universal conviction, that the perusal of his works will make no man better; and that their ultimate effect is to represent pleasure in alliance with vice, and to relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated.
On the contrary, to read Congreve's plays is to be convinced that we may learn from them many lessons much to our advantage both as writers of books and—if the division is possible—as livers of life. We might learn there, to begin with, the discipline of plain speech; to leave nothing lurking in the insidious shades of obscurity that can be said in words. The phrase is always finished; nothing is left to dwindle into darkness, to sound after the words are over. Then, when we have learnt to express ourselves, we may go on to observe the indefatigable hard work of a great writer: how he keeps us entertained because something is always happening, and on the alert because that something is always changing, and by contrasting laughter and seriousness, action and thought, keeps the edge of the emotions always sharp. To ring so many changes and keep up so rapid a speed of movement might well be enough, but in addition each of these characters has its own being, and each differs—the sea-dog from the fop, the old eccentric from the man of the world, the maid from the mistress. He has to enter into each; to leave his private pigeon-hole and invest himself with the emotions of another human being, so that speech meets speech at full tilt, each from its own angle.
A genius for phrase-making helps him. Now he strikes off a picture in a flash: "...there he lies with a great beard, like a Russian bear upon a drift of snow". Now in a marvellous rush of rapid invention he conveys a whole chapter of guttersnipe life.
That I took from the washing of old gauze and weaving of dead hair, with a bleak blue nose, over a chafing dish of starv'd embers, and dining behind a traverse rag, in a shop no bigger than a bird cage.
Then, again, like some miraculous magpie he repeats the naive words, follows the crude emotions, of a great gawky girl like Miss Prue. However it is done, to enter into such diverse characters is, the moralists may note, at any rate to forget your own. Undoubtedly it is true that his language is often coarse; but then it is also true that his characters are more alive, quicker to strip off veils, more intolerant of circumlocutions than the ordinary run of people. They are reduced to phrase-making oftener than we could wish, and fine phrases often sound cynical; but then the situations are often so improbable that only fine phrases will cover them, and words, we must remember, were still to Congreve's generation as delightful as beads to a savage. Without that rapture the audacity of his splendid phrases would have been impossible.
But if we have to admit that some of the characters are immoral, and some of the opinions cynical, still we must ask how far we can call a character immoral or an opinion cynical if we feel that the author himself was aware of its immorality and intended its cynicism? And, though it is a delicate matter to separate an author from his characters and detach him from their opinions, no one can read Congreve's comedies without detecting a common atmosphere, a general attitude that holds them together for all their diversity. The stress laid on certain features creates a common likeness as unmistakable as the eyes and nose of a family face. The plays are veined through and through with satire. "Therefore I would rail in my writings and be revenged", says Valentine in Love for Love. Congreve's satire seems sometimes, as Scandal says, to have the whole world for its butt. Yet there is underneath a thinking mind, a mind that doubts and questions. Some hint thrown out in passing calls us back to make us ponder it: for instance, Mellefont's "Ay, My Lord, I shall have the same reason for happiness that your Lordship has, I shall think myself happy". Or, again, a sudden phrase like "There's comfort in a hand stretched out to one that's sinking" suggests, by its contrast, a sensibility that trembles on the edge of tears. Nothing is stressed; sentiment never broadens into sentimentality; everything passes as quickly as a ray of light and blends as indistinguishably. But if we needs must prove that the creator of Sir Sampson Legend and old Foresight had not only a prodigious sense of human absurdity and a bitter conviction of its insincerity but as quick a regard for its honesty and decency as any Victorian or Dr. Johnson himself, we need only point to his simplicity. After we have run up the scale of absurdity to its sublime heights a single word again and again recalls us to common sense. "That my poor father should be so very silly" is one such comment, immensely effective in its place. Again and again we are brought back to sanity and daylight by the sound of a voice speaking in its natural tones.
But it is the Valentines, the Mirabells, the Angelicas, and the Millamants who keep us in touch with truth and, by striking a sudden serious note, bring the rest to scale. They have sharpened their emotions upon their wits. They have flouted each other; bargained; taken love and examined it by the light of reason; teased and tested each other almost beyond endurance. But when it comes to the point and she must be serious, the swiftest of all heroines, whose mind and body seem equally winged, so that there is a rush in the air as she passes and we exclaim with Scandal. "Gone; why, she was never here, nor anywhere else", has a centre of stillness in her heart and enough emotion in her words to furbish out a dozen pages of eloquent disquisition. "Why does not the man take me? Would you have me give myself to you over again?" The words are simple, and yet, after what has already been said, so brimming with meaning that Mirabell's reply, "Ay, over and over again", seems to receive into itself more than words, can say. And this depth of emotion, we have to reflect, the change and complexity that are implied in it, have been reached in the direct way; that is by making each character speak in his or her own person, without addition from the author or any soliloquy save such as can be spoken on the stage in the presence of an audience. No, whether we read him from the moralist's angle or from the artist's, to agree with Dr. Johnson is an impossibility. To read the comedies is not to "relax those obligations by which life ought to be regulated". On the contrary, the more slowly we read him and the more carefully, the more meaning we find, the more beauty we discover.
Here perhaps, in the reflections that linger when the book is shut and The Way of the World is finished, lies the answer to the old puzzle why at the height of his powers he stopped writing. It is that he had done all that was possible in that kind. The last play held more than any audience could grasp at a single sitting. The bodily presence of actors and actresses must, it would seem, often overpower the words that they had to speak. He had forgotten, or disregarded, his own axiom that "the distance of the stage requires the figures represented to be something larger than the life". He had written, as he says in the dedication, for "the Few", and "but little of it was prepar'd for that general taste which seems now to be predominant in the palates of our audience". He had come to despise his public, and it was time therefore either to write differently or to leave off. But the novel, which offered another outlet, was uncongenial; he was incorrigibly dramatic, as his one attempt at fiction shows. And poetry, too, was denied him, for though again and again he brings us to the edge of poetry in a phrase like "You're a woman, One to whom Heav'n gave beauty, when it grafted roses on a briar", and suggests, as. Meredith does in his novels, the mood of poetry, he was unable to pass beyond human idiosyncrasy to the more general statement of poetry. He must move and laugh and bring us into touch with action instantly.
Since these two paths then were blocked, what other way was there for a writer of Congreve's temperament but to make an end? Dangerous as it is to distinguish a writer from his work, we cannot help but recognise a man behind the plays—a man as sensitive to criticism as he was skilled in inflicting it on others; for what is his defiance of the critics but deference to them? A scholar too with all the scholar's fastidiousness; a man of birth and breeding for whom the vulgar side of fame held little gratification; a man, in short, who might well have said with Valentine, "Nay, I am not violently bent upon the trade", and sit, handsome and portly and sedate as his portrait shows him, "very gravely with his hat over his eyes", as the gossips observed him, content to strive no more.
But indeed he left very little for the gossips to feed upon; no writer of his time and standing passed through the world more privately. Voltaire left a dubious anecdote; the Duchess of Marlborough, it is said, had an effigy of him set at her table after his death; his few discreet letters provide an occasional hint: "Ease and quiet is what I hunt after"; "I feel very sensibly and silently for those whom I love"—that is all. But there is a fitness in this very absence of relics as though he had consumed whatever was irrelevant to his work and left us to find him there. And there, indeed, we find something beyond himself; beyond the many figures of his fertile and brilliant imagination; beyond Tattle and Ben, Foresight and Angelica, Maskwell and Lady Wishfort, Mirabell and Mellefont and Millamant. Between them they have created what is not to be confined within the limits of a single character or expressed in any one play—a world where each part depends upon the other, the serene, impersonal, and indestructible world of art.
Written in 1925
That men have ghosts; that ghosts revisit the places where life ran quickest; that Sterne therefore haunts no churchyard, but the room where Tristram Shandy was written—all this may be taken for granted; even if we find it no such easy matter to decide in what mood and with what motives the ghost of Sterne beat regularly at midnight upon the wall of Mrs. Simpson's best bedroom in Stonegate, Yorks.
Mrs. Simpson made no secret of the matter, which perhaps was too notorious to be concealed. Owing to the ghost, she told the young Mathews, she would let the rooms, large as they were and convenient for the theatre, very cheap indeed, and perceiving something in Mrs. Mathews's aspect which made her think her, as indeed she was, "a candidate for literary gains", she added how it was in this room and at that very table that a very famous book called Tristram Shandy was written, she believed, some forty years before. Even without its literary associations the cheapness of the lodging was enough to excuse the ghost, for the young Mathews were extremely poor—Charles acting at a salary of twenty-five shillings a week in Tate Wilkinson's company, but Tate did not scruple to tell him that with his screwed-up face and threadpaper body he had better keep a shop than go upon the stage, while poor Eliza, the girl whom Charles had married, out of pity, the second Mrs. Mathews said, without "really loving her", had not a penny to her name, which happened to be Strong. And Strong she had need to be, said Charles's father, strong in character, strong in health, strong in principles, strong in affections, if she became the wife of the misguided boy who so wantonly preferred the stage and all its evils to selling serious books to saintly personages in the Strand. But Eliza herself was conscious of one source of strength only (besides that she was very much in love with her husband) and that was her gift for writing—her passion for literature. When Mrs. Simpson at one and the same moment lowered the rent and mentioned Sterne, the bargain was struck and the rooms taken. The ghost must be endured.
That necessity arose, indeed, the very first night the Mathews went to bed. As York Minster struck the first chimes of midnight three powerful blows resounded on the wall at the back of the young couple's bed. The same thing happened night after night. York Minster had only to begin striking twelve and the ghost struck three. Watch was set; experiments were made; but whether it was the ghost of Sterne or the malevolence of some ill-wisher, no cause could be discovered and the young people could only move their bed, and shift their bedtime, which, as the playhouse hours were late and Charles had a passion for reading or talking late at night, was a matter of not much difficulty. Such courage could hardly have been expected of so frail a woman. But unfortunately Eliza had a reason for tolerating ghosts, if they reduced the rent, which she dared not tell her Husband. Every week, like the honest and affectionate creature he was, he poured his salary—twenty-five shillings—into her lap, and every week she assured him that twenty-five shillings was ample—all their bills were paid. But every week a certain number, an increasing number, for all she could do to keep their expenses down, were slipped, unpaid, into Sterne's table drawer. Eliza perhaps had some inkling of the fact that her husband had married her impetuously in the goodness of his heart, from pity that the only child of the late Dr. Strong should have to support herself by inculcating the principles of arithmetic into the daughters of the gentlemen of Swansea. At any rate, she was determined that he should never suffer for his generosity. Comforts he must have, and if twenty-five shillings a week were not enough to pay for them she would pay for them herself out of her own earnings. She was confident that she could do it. She would write a novel, a novel like Tristram Shandy perhaps, save that her knowledge of life was unfortunately limited, which would set all London in a roar. And then she would come to her husband with the bills receipted and her deception confessed, and give him the proceeds of her famous novel to do what he liked with. But that day was still far distant—at present she must work. While Charles was acting and reading, while Charles, who loved talk and hated bedtime, was gossiping and chattering and taking off odd characters, so that he was famous in the green room whatever he might be upon the stage, Eliza wrote. She wrote every kind of piece—novels, sonnets, elegies, love songs. The publishers took them, the publishers printed them, but they never paid her a penny for them, and on she toiled, always carefully concealing her work from her husband, so that his surprise when the day of revelation came might be entire.
Meanwhile the bills accumulated, and act as Charles might (and there were some young ladies in York who thought him the finest comic actor they had ever seen, and would stand a whole evening in the wings to hear him) his salary remained twenty-five shillings and no more. It was useless for the ghost to knock; useless for Eliza's back to ache; useless for her good brother-in-law William to implore her to write everything twice over, peruse the best works of the best authors, and find mottoes for all her chapters—she had no choice; write she must. Surely the novel she was now engaged on—What Has Been—promised better than the others, and with a little help from William, who knew Mr. Wordsworth and could perhaps solicit the favours of reviewers, might, indeed must, bring her fame. Sitting where Sterne had sat, writing where Sterne had written, the omens were auspicious.
There, at any rate, long after the ghost had knocked thrice and York Minster had tolled twelve times, she sat writing. She neglected to take exercise. She never allowed herself to stand in the wings a whole evening to see her Charles in his comic parts. At last signs of exhaustion became apparent. Alarmed by her wasted looks, Charles brought a doctor to see her. But one glance was enough. Nothing could now be done. Whatever the cause, lack of exercise or lack of food, or whether the nervous strain of hearing those three taps delivered nightly had hopelessly injured her constitution, consumption was far advanced; and all the doctor could do was to prescribe apothecaries' stuff, which, expensive as it was, Charles feared to be useless.
Eliza was now confined to bed. Her projects had totally failed. What Has Been appeared, but, even corrected and at least partially supplied with mottoes by the kindness of Mr. William Mathews, failed like its predecessors, and she was at an end of her resources. Even so, the worst was still to come. The butcher or the baker stopped Charles in the street and demanded payment. The drawer and its bills had to be revealed. The whole of her miserable, innocent, overwhelming deception must be confessed. Charles took the blow like an angel, said not a word of complaint, though the bills were to hang about his neck for years to come. And now, for the first time, the ghost fell silent. York Minster struck midnight and there was no reply. But really the silence was worse than the sound! To lie and wait for the three stout strokes as York Minster struck twelve, and then to hear nothing—that seemed to convey a more appalling message than the blow itself—as if the enemy had worked its will and gone its way. But this very silence inspired Eliza Mathews with a desperate courage. With the ghost quiescent, the novels unsold, the bills unpaid, Charles all day at the playhouse, often cast down by his failure and the thought of his father's displeasure—for the God-fearing bookseller in the Strand, where the whole house was hung with portraits of the Saints framed in ebony, and canting humbugs bamboozled the simple old tradesman out of his livelihood, had been justified in his warnings—with all this that she had caused, or failed to prevent, to oppress her, and the daily decline of her own health to appal, Eliza framed a terrible and desperate resolve. There was a girl at the playhouse for whom she had an affection, a singer who was friendless as Eliza herself had been, and timid and charming. For this young woman, Anne Jackson by name, Eliza sent. She was better, Eliza claimed, as Anne came in, and indeed her looks confirmed it; much better, because of an idea that had come to her, which she counted on her friend's help to carry out. First, before her husband came back, she wished to be propped up in bed, in order, she said mysteriously, "to be able to look at you both while I reveal my project". Directly Charles Mathews appeared, and exclaimed in his turn at her sparkle, her animation, she began. Sitting up, forced often to pause for breath, she said how she knew her fate; death was inevitable; how the thought of her husband's loneliness oppressed her—worse, the thought that he would marry again a woman who did not understand him. Here she paused exhausted, and Charles looked at Anne and Anne at Charles, as if to ask had she lost her reason? On she went again. It was even worse, she said, to think of Anne left in her youth and inexperience without such help as she, Eliza, might have given her. Thoughts of this kind embittered her last moments. Surely, then, they would grant the last request she would ever make? She took her husband's hand and kissed it; then took her friend's and kissed that too "in a solemn manner, which I remember made me tremble all over", and at last framed her terrible request. Would they, there and then, pledge themselves to marry each other when she was dead?
Both were flabbergasted. Anne burst into floods of tears. Never, she cried, never could she contemplate marriage with Mr. Mathews She esteemed him; she admired him; she thought him the first comic actor of the age; that was all. Charles himself fairly scolded the dying woman for putting them in such an awful predicament. He ran after the sobbing girl to implore her to believe that it was none of his doing—that his wife was raving and no longer knew what she said. And so Eliza died. For months a coldness, an awkwardness, existed between the widower and his wife's friend. They scarcely met. Then at the same moment on the same night the same vision visited them, far apart as they were, in their sleep. Eliza came imploring to the side of each. Well, said Anne, it must be destiny; Shakespeare said so; "marriage comes of destiny", he said, and she was disposed to agree with Shakespeare. Twelve months after she had sworn that she could never feel anything but esteem for Mr. Mathews, she was his wife.
But what conclusion are we led to draw from the behaviour of Sterne's ghost? Was it malicious or tender, did it come to warn or to mock, or merely to dip its handkerchief once more in the tears of lovers? Nobody could say. Charles Mathews told the story of the Stonegate ghost a hundred times in the green room at York, but nobody came forward with an explanation. Again one night he was telling the story, when an old actress who had returned to the stage after a long absence and had heard nothing of the ghost or of the Mathews, exclaimed in astonishment "Why, that was my dear Billy Leng!" And then she told them how they lodged next door to Mrs. Simpson's in Stonegate; how her dear Billy had been bedridden for many years; how, as his infirmities increased, so did his fear of robbers; how, being the most methodical of men, and growing more so with age, he waited always for York Minster to chime midnight and then took his crutch-handled stick and beat forcibly on the calico at the back of his bed to warn any thief who might be concealed there. "It was no ghost," she cried, "it was my dear Billy Leng!"
Cleared of the imputation which the ghost of Sterne had cast upon them, Mrs. Simpson now let her rooms for the ordinary sum.
Written in February 1941
No one can destroy Boswell's sketch of Mrs. Thrale. It is done with such venom and such vivacity; it contains so much of Boswell himself, and, like all Boswell's portraits, it fits so perfectly into its place in the picture. But Mr. Clifford* has done what is far more valuable and more difficult. He has gone behind Boswell's sketch and beyond it. He has amplified it and solidified it. He has brought Mrs. Thrale herself into the foreground. And by so doing he has changed the proportions of the picture.
[* Hester Lynch Piozzi (Mrs. Thrale). By James L. Clifford.]
Mrs. Thrale herself has lived an ambiguous scattered life all these years in a mass of half published or unpublished documents sprinkled over England and America. And for years Mr. Clifford has been tracking her down and piecing her together with the most devoted care and the most triumphant results. If it were not that her diary and her commonplace book are still in the hands of an American editor, we should suppose that the whole woman is now before us. As it is we know her better perhaps than almost any living person. We can follow her, as we cannot follow our friends, at a foot's pace for more than eighty years. Yet the effect of this minute illumination is baffling. The more we know of people the less we can sum them up. Just as we think to hold the bird in our hands, the bird flits off. Who can explain, for example, why the brilliant and precocious Hester consented to marry the man whom Mr. Clifford now reveals in his entirety—the odious Thrale? When her father discovered their clandestine correspondence he fell dead in a fit. And for once the incompetent, irascible, impecunious Welsh squire was in the right. No marriage could have been more incongruous. Hester was impressionable, generous, intellectual. Thrale was a cold, callous, conventional man of business who aped the habits of the aristocracy but was without their distinction, who had the grossness of the middle class but lacked their geniality. If he had any affection besides his passion for meat and drink, it was not for Hester but for her mother. Yet Hester married him and was at once immured in the great house at Streatham, "like a kept mistress", as Johnson said, "shut from the world".
It was her marriage, however, that gave depth to her relationship with Johnson. Had she been happy, she would never have known him as she did. He gave her, of course, the obvious things—stimulus, society, an outlet for her irrepressible curiosity and ambition. But the friendship between the young wife and the old man was based on deeper things. Johnson was not merely a distinguished guest at dinner. He had the run of the house. He and his hostess went together behind the scenes. It was to Johnson that Mrs. Thrale turned when her eyes were red with crying—when Queeney snubbed her; when Mr. Thrale took another mistress; when ruin threatened them; when one after another the children were born, and the children fell ill and died. "What shall I do? What can I do? Has the flattery of my friends made me too proud of my Brains? and must these poor Children suffer for my crime?" she cried out to him in her anguish. He gave her counsel and confidence. In return she gave him a share in the family, a stake in the next generation, and domesticity. It was by "the pump-side in the kitchen garden" at Streatham that Johnson was caught "fusing metals" when Mr. Thrale came back from the city and put out the fire. One anecdote sums up their relationship. Johnson had been more than usually rude to her in company, and some one protested. But Mrs. Thrale passed it off with a smile. "Oh dear good man!" she said. And when the words were repeated to Johnson "he seemed much delighted...and repeated in a loud whisper, Oh dear good man!"
Why, then, when Mr. Thrale finally ate himself to death, did a friendship that had been daily rubbed and tried for sixteen years come to an end? Partly, as Mr. Clifford makes plain, because Mrs. Thrale had suppressed a great deal. She had certain individual tastes of her own. One was a romantic passion for the scenery of Wales; another was a genuine love for painting. But when the three of them travelled in Wales, neither Johnson nor Thrale had a word of praise for the landscape; and in Paris she was left to gaze for hours in the galleries alone. Again as a writer—she scribbled incessantly—she was by nature an innovator. "Why, she wondered, should there be one set of words for writing and another for speaking?" She saw no reason why one should not write as one speaks, familiarly, colloquially; and her pages, "crowded with familiar phrases and vulgar idioms", roused the disgust of the conventional. Clearly there were a thousand curiosities and desires dormant in her that the old man could not gratify. So long as she was Thrale's wife and the mistress of Streatham she must suppress them. But when her husband's dead weight was lifted off her, up she sprang. She became again the precocious and impulsive Hester Salusbury. Perhaps marriage had kept her youth green in her—she was only just past forty when she became a widow. And one day before Thrale's death Mrs. Byron had warned her, while Piozzi sang to the harpsichord: "You know, I suppose, that that man is in Love with you?"
"That man" is one of Mr. Clifford's most remarkable reconstructions. To the Streatham circle he was merely "an Italian musick master". When they had said that they had said enough. But in fact he was an Italian gentleman of great charm and cultivation; a composer and performer of merit; and a passionate lover of music. He travelled with a small harpsichord fitted under the seat so that he could play Mozart and Haydn on the roads. They floated on a barge down the Brenta to the strains of his music. Nor was he lacking in the sober virtues. He managed Mrs. Piozzi's tangled money matters admirably, and he ended his days in Wales giving plum puddings to villagers and performing the duties of a country gentleman. Yet at the notion that such a man could marry a brewer's widow, the whole company of distinguished people who had feasted at her table took flight in one flock. Johnson trumpeted his rage. "She has now become a subject for her enemies to exult over, and for her friends, if she has any left, to forget or pity." "Heaven be praised," exclaimed the Queen of the Blues, "that I have no daughters." It was only charity that led her to conclude that Mrs. Thrale was mad. For Johnson there is the excuse that he had lost at one blow Streatham and its peaches and its pork pies and the undivided attention of his lady. The old elephant was jealous, and his rage has at least the dignity of wounded passion. But how are we to explain the conduct of the others? Only perhaps by supposing that it is almost impossible even for genius and learning to swim against the conventions of their time. And while genius and learning come down the stream untouched, the conventions in which they exist soon become obsolete and ridiculous. An Italian music master in the eighteenth century was, we must suppose, equal to a negro to-day. To explain the conduct of the Streatham set we must imagine the attitude of society to-day to a lady of rank who has contracted an alliance with a negro and expects Mayfair to open its doors to her dusky and illegitimate brood.
But the more we excuse the Streatham set, the more we must admire Mrs. Piozzi. Her passion for Piozzi made her for once concentrated and direct. There is a fine ring in her letter to Johnson.
The birth of my second husband (she told him) is not meaner than that of my first; his sentiments are not meaner; his profession is not meaner...till you have changed your opinion of Mr. Piozzi let us converse no more.
With those words she should have vanished down the Brenta to the strains of Mozart. Unfortunately, Mr. Clifford has an inexhaustible supply of those little facts that reduce music to common speech. With Johnson it is plain that Mrs. Thrale had lost her centre. Now there was some screw loose. The whirligig spins faster and faster. She was for ever dipping and sampling, quarrelling and chattering. She was impulsive and impressionable, but she was also obtuse and tactless. Her children found her intolerable Fanny Burney resented her patronage. She decked her little body in grebe skins and tiger shawls and flaxen wigs and many-coloured ribbons. She made a fool of herself with her adopted nephew, and let herself be cheated out of six thousand pounds to buy him a baronetcy. There was a coarseness in her fibre and a commonness in her vision that explain why, as an observer, she was so greatly inferior to Boswell.
Yet the spin of the whirligig has its fascination. Her appetite for life was prodigious. She must have someone to worship. Mrs. Siddons succeeded Dr. Johnson. Mr. Conway succeeded Mrs. Siddons. When there was no hero to entertain, she devoured books. And when the books were read, and the letters written, and the copy books filled, she had out her telescope and scoured the horizon. One day she counted forty-one sails out to sea. Then, turning her telescope to the earth, she discovered Sir John Williams five miles away searching for something in his garden. What could it be? She could not rest until she had sent a servant to ascertain that Sir John was looking for his watch.
At last, at the age of eighty, she led the dance at her birthday party with her nephew; and danced indefatigably till dawn. That was in 1820. By that time one has almost forgotten Boswell's sketch. It was a snapshot at one particular moment. But the moment has long been covered over. She has loved; she has travelled; she has known everybody; she has been in the depths of despair and on the crest of the wave times without counting. The portrait of the old lady in the huge bonnet shows a very modern face, with her great vivacious eyes, her loose lips, and the deep scar over the mouth which, by her own wish, the artist has faithfully depicted. For that was the scar she got when her horse threw her in 1774 at Streatham.
SIR WALTER SCOTT. GAS AT ABBOTSFORD
Written in January 1940
Either Scott the novelist is swallowed whole and becomes r part of the body and brain, or he is rejected entirely. There is no middle party in existence—no busybodies run from camp to camp with offers of mediation. For there is no war. The novels of Dickens, Trollope, Henry James, Tolstoy, the Brontës—they are discussed perpetually; the Waverley novels never. There they remain, completely accepted, entirely rejected—a queer stage in that ever-changing process which is called immortality. If anything is going to break the deadlock perhaps it is the first volume of Scott's Journal, 1825-1826, which Mr. J. G. Tait has been at immense pains to edit and revise. As Scott's Journals are the best life of Scott in existence, as they contain Scott in his glory and Scott in his gloom, and gossip about Byron, and the famous comment upon Jane Austen, as in a few passages Scott throws more light upon his genius and its limitations than all his critics in their innumerable volumes, this new version may one of these dark nights bring the two non-combatants to blows.
By way of inducing that desirable encounter, let us take the entry for November 21st, 1825: "Went to the Oil Gas Committee this morning, of which concern I am President or Chairman". Scott, as Lockhart tells us and we can well believe, had a passion for gas. He loved a bright light, and he did not mind a slight smell. As for the expense of those innumerable pipes, in dining-room, drawing-room, corridors, and bedrooms, and the men's wages—he swept all that aside in those glorious days when his imagination was at its height. "The state of an illumination was constantly kept up"; and the gas shone upon a brilliant company. Everyone was flocking to Abbotsford—dukes and duchesses, lion hunters and toadies, the famous and the obscure. "Oh dear," Miss Scott exclaimed. "Will this never end, Papa?" And her father replied, "Let them come, the more the merrier." And someone else walked in.
One night, a year or two before the diary begins, the stranger was a young artist. Artists were so common at Abbotsford that Scott's dog, Maida, recognised them at sight and got up and left the room. This time it was William Bewick, obscure, penniless, in pursuit of sitters. Naturally he was a good deal dazzled both by the gas and the company. Kind Mrs. Hughes, therefore, the wife of the deaf Dean of St. Paul's, tried to put him at his ease. She told him how she had often soothed her children's quarrels by showing them Bewick's woodcuts. But William Bewick was no relation of Thomas Bewick. One feels that he had heard the remark before and rather resented it, for was he not a painter himself?
He was a painter himself, and an extremely bad one. Did not Haydon say "Bewick, my pupil, has realised my hopes in his picture of Jacob and Rachel"? Did he not add, some years later, when they had quarrelled about money, "Daniel's left foot and leg would have disgraced Bewick before he ran away from my tuition to the shelter of Academical wings"? But we know without Haydon's testimony that Bewick's portraits were intolerable. We know that from his writing. His friends are always painted in a state of violent physical agitation, but mentally they are stock still, stone dead. There is his picture of Hazlitt playing tennis. "He looked more like a savage animal than anything human..." He cast off his shirt; he leapt; he darted; when the game was over he rubbed himself against a post, dripping with sweat. But when he spoke, "His ejaculations were interlarded", Bewick says, "with unintentional and unmeaning oaths." They cannot be repeated; they must be imagined; in other words, Hazlitt was dumb. Or take Bewick's account of an evening party in a small room when the Italian poet Foscolo met Wordsworth. They argued. Foscolo "deliberately doubled his fist and held it in Wordsworth's face close to his nose". Then, suddenly, he began whirling round the room, tossing his quizzing glass, rolling his R's, bawling. The ladies "drew in their feet and costumes". Wordsworth sat "opening his mouth and eyes, gasping for breath". At last he spoke. For page after page he spoke; or rather dead phrases coagulated upon his lips, in frozen and lifeless entanglements. Listen for a moment. "Although I appreciate, and I hope, can admire sufficiently the beauties of Raphael's transcendent genius...yet we must brace the sinews, so to speak, of our comprehension to grapple with the grandeur and sublimity...of Michael Angelo..." It is enough. We see Bewick's pictures; we realise how intolerable it became to sit any longer under the portrait of Grandpapa flinging out a bare arm from the toga while the horse in the background champs his bit, paws the ground, and seems to neigh.
That night at Abbotsford the gas blazed from the three great chandeliers over the dinner-table; and the dinner, "as my 'friend, Thackeray, would have said, was recherche". Then they went into the drawing-room—a vast apartment with its mirrors, its marble tables, Chantrey's bust, the varnished woodwork and the crimson tasselled curtains pendant from handsome brass rods. They went in and Bewick was dazzled—"The brilliant gaslight, the elegance and taste displayed throughout this beautiful apartment, the costumes of the ladies, with the sparkle and glitter of the tea-table"—the scene, as Bewick describes it, brings back all the worst passages in the Waverley Novels. We can see the jewels sparkling, we can smell the gas escaping, we can hear the conversation. There is Lady Scott gossiping with kind Mrs. Hughes; there is Scott himself, prosing and pompous, grumbling about his son Charles and his passion for sport. "But I suppose it will have an end at a given time, like any other hobby of youth." To complete the horror, the German Baron D'este strums on the guitar. He is showing "how in Germany they introduced into guitar performances of martial music the imitation of the beating of drums" Miss Scott—or is she Miss Wardour or another of the vapid and vacant Waverley novel heroines?—hangs over him entranced. Then, suddenly, the whole scene changes. Scott began in a low mournful voice to recite the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens:
Every couple of years, I teach an upper-level writing course, mostly for English majors, entitled "The Art of the Essay." Focused on the historical development of the familiar (or personal) essay, the class introduces students to a more complex definition of this type of essay than straightforward narration of particular experiences in their lives, a definition nearly every student has encountered in his or her academic career. Articulating to students that the familiar essay can be more than straightforward narration, and getting them to adopt a wider range of strategies in their own personal essays, is the greatest challenge in teaching this course. There are many helpful textbooks that present these ideas in accessible language (I use Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay and Sheila Bender's Writing and Publishing Personal Essays), but these cannot replace monographs by specialists, whose work also informs my own thinking about the subject as I teach the course.
Virginia Woolf's Essayism is a welcome addition to this store of information, since it uses Woolf to highlight some of the key issues regarding how we define the familiar essay (and since Woolf is one of the essayists I always teach in my class). Saloman's main argument—that Woolf used the essay to "solve artistic problems" and explore the "deepest questions about herself as a writer, and about the writing process"—directly addresses how the essay is a unique form, unlike other genres in its ability to create a dialogue between author and reader, one of the key points stressed in Lopate's anthology. Specifically, Saloman argues that the essay is unlike the novel in its ability to "work without an attention-grabbing plot or a clear, linear narrative, trusting in the random acts of life, together with the essayist's ability to extract [End Page 543] thought and meaning, to create order." According to Saloman, the essay can be distinguished from the novel by its ability to "make connections and engage its readers," whereas the novel takes away the authority of the reader by adopting a more controlling narrator. With the novel, the reader's role is to "interpret and reflect" on characters rather than "participate or contribute" to the narrative by filling in the gaps left by the narrator, as the reader must do when reading an essay.
Certainly, there are objections one can make to Saloman's rigid definition of the novel, and it is surprising that Saloman does not address Mikhail Bakhtin's argument about the "heteroglossic" nature of the novel anywhere in her book, though she does refer to Bakhtin's work on speech genres in her concluding chapter. Still, if readers can overlook this and accept that Saloman has important ideas about the unique qualities of the essay, the arguments in the chapters of her book are very informative. Chapter one lays out the foundation for comparing and contrasting Woolf's essays and novels by focusing on one of Woolf's best-known (and frequently taught) essays, "Street Haunting," and its fictional counterpart, Mrs. Dalloway. Saloman places her analysis of the two works within the context of the development of the novel, and she shows how the essayistic qualities found in "Street Haunting" can be seen in Mrs. Dalloway as well. Although I do not find every claim Saloman makes about Mrs. Dalloway convincing (for example, that readers of Mrs. Dalloway are "never allowed to abandon a passive position and engage dialectically with the book, as one might an essay"), I appreciate her analysis of "Street Haunting," in which she provides new insight on the figure of the shoe-buying dwarf in the essay, a figure students frequently want to discuss in my class.
Chapter two brings attention to the specific qualities of the essay that make it such an engaging form for the reader, especially the relationship of trust between the essayist and the reader, with the essayist pledging to "grapple in an honest manner with whatever the issue at hand may be" and the reader "demonstrat[ing] the...