Front Page Titles (by Subject) Letter VII.: CONCLUDING LETTER. - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 1 (Memoir, Early Essays)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Letter VII.: CONCLUDING LETTER. - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 1 (Memoir, Early Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Paris, 19th Feb., 1852.
There is a story of some Swedish Abbé, in the last century, who wrote an elaborate work to prove the then constitution of his country to be immortal and indestructible. While he was correcting the proof sheets, a friend brought him word that—behold! the King had already destroyed the said polity. “Sir,” replied the gratified author, “our Sovereign, the illustrious Gustavus, may certainly overthrow the Constitution, but never my book.” I beg to parody this sensible remark; for I wish to observe to you, that even though Louis Napoleon should turn out a bad and mischievous ruler, he won’t in the least refute these letters.
What I mean is as follows. Above all things, I have designed to prove to you that the French are by character unfit for a solely and predominantly Parliamentary Government; that so many and so great elements of convulsion exist here, that it will be clearly necessary that a strong, vigorous, antibarricade executive should, at whatever risk and cost, be established and maintained; that such an Assembly as the last is irreconcilable with this; in a word, that riots and revolutions must, if possible, come to an end, and only such a degree of liberty and democracy be granted to the French nation, as is consistent with the consolidated existence of the order and tranquillity which are equally essential to rational freedom and civilised society.
In order to combine the maintenance of order and tranquillity with the maximum of possible liberty, I hope that it may in the end be found possible to admit into a political system a representative and sufficiently democratic Assembly, without that Assembly assuming and arrogating to itself those nearly omnipotent powers, which in our country it properly and rightfully possesses, but which in the history of the last sixty years, we have, as it seems to me, so many and so cogent illustrations that a French Chamber is, by genius and constitution, radically incapable to hold and exercise. I hope that some checking, consultative, petitioning Assembly—some βουλή, in the real sense of the term—some Council, some provision by which all grave and deliberate public opinion (I do not speak more definitely, because an elaborate Constitution, from a foreigner, must be an absurdity) may organise and express itself—yet at the same time, without utterly hampering and directing—and directing amiss—those more simple elements of national polity on which we must, after all, rely for the prompt and steady repression of barricade-making and bloodshed.
I earnestly desire to believe that some such system as this may be found in practice possible; for otherwise, unless I quite misread history, and altogether mistake what is under my eyes, after many more calamities, many more changes, many more great Assemblies abounding in Vergniauds and Berryers, the essential deficiencies of debating Girondin statesmen will become manifest, the uncompact, unpractical, over-volatile, overlogical, indecisive, ineffectual rule of Gallican Parliaments will be unequivocally manifest (it is now plain, I imagine, but a truth so humiliating must be written large in letters of blood before those that run will read it), and no medium being held or conceived to be possible, the nation will sink back, not contented but discontented, not trustfully but distrustfully, under the rule of a military despot; and if they yield to this, it will be from no faith, no loyalty, no credulity; it will be from a sense—a hated sense—of unqualified failure, a miserable scepticism in the probable success and the possible advantages of long-tried and ill-tried rebellion.
Now, whether the Constitution of Louis Napoleon is calculated to realise this ideal and intermediate system, is, till we see it at work, doubtful and disputable. It is not the question so much of what it may be at this moment, as of what it may become in a brief period, when things have begun to assume a more normal state, and the public mind shall be relaxed from its present and painful tension. However, I should be deceiving you, if I did not inform you that the state of men’s minds towards the Prince-President is not, so far as I can make it out, what it was the day after the coup d’état. The measures taken against the Socialists are felt to have been several degrees too severe; the list of exiles too numerous; the confiscation of the Orleans property could not but be attended with the worst effect; the law announced by the Government organs respecting or rather against the Press, is justly (though you know from my last letter I have no partiality for French newspapers) considered to be absurdly severe, and likely to countenance much tyranny and gross injustice; above all, instead of maintaining mere calm and order, the excessive rigour, and sometimes the injustice, of the President’s measures, have produced a breathless pause (if I may so speak) in public opinion; political conversation is a whispered question, what will he do next? Firstly, the Government is dull, and the French want to be amused; secondly, it is going to spoil the journals (depreciate newspapers to a Frenchman, disparage nuts to a monkey); thirdly, it is producing (I do not say it has yet produced, but it has made a beginning in producing) a habit of apprehension;—in fact, I believe the French opinion of the Prince-President is near about that of the interesting damsel in George Sand’s comedy, concerning her uninteresting pretendu: “Vous l’aimez? n’est-ce pas?” “Oui, oui, oui, certainement je l’aime. Oui, oui, mille fois, oui. Je dis que oui. Je vous assure.Au moinsje fais mon possible à l’aimer:” the first attachment is not extinct, but people have begun—awful symptom—to add the withering and final saving clause. Yet it is, I imagine, a great mistake to suppose that the present Constitution, if it work at all, will permanently work as a despotism, or that the Corps Législatif will be without a measure of popular influence; the much more helpless Tribunal was not so in the much more troublesome times of the Consulate. And the source of such influence and the manner of its operation may be, I imagine, well enough traced in the nature of the forces whereby Louis Napoleon holds his power.
A truly estimable writer says, I know, “that the Legislative body cannot have, by possibility, any analogy with the consultative and petitioning senate of the Plantagenets,” nor can any one deny that the likeness is extremely faint (no illustration ever yet ran on all fours), the practical differences clear and convincing. But yet, according to the light which is given me now, I affirm that for one vital purpose—the resisting and criticising any highly unpopular acts of a highly unpopular Government—the Corps Législatif of Louis Napoleon must, and will, inevitably possess a power compared with which the forty-day followers of the feudal noblesse seem as impotent as a congregation of Quakers; a force the peculiarity of which is that you can’t imprison, can’t dissolve, can’t annihilate it—I mean, of course, the moral power of civilised opinion. You may put down newspapers, dissolve Parliaments, imprison agitators, almost stop conversation, but you can’t stop thought. You can’t prevent the silent, slow, creeping, stealthy progress of hatred, and scorn, and shame. You can’t attenuate easily the stern justice of a retarded retaliation. These influences affect the great reservoir of physical force—they act on the army. A body of men enlisted daily from the people take to the barracks the notions of the people; in spite of new associations, the first impressions are apt to be retained; you overlay them, but they remain. What is believed elsewhere and out of doors gives them weight. Each soldier has relations, friends, a family—he knows what they think. Much more with the officers. These are men moving in Parisian society, accessible to its influences, responsible to its opinion, apt to imbibe its sentiments. Certainly esprit de corps—the habit of obedience, the instinct of discipline, are strong, and will carry men far; but certainly, also, they have natural limits. Men won’t stand being cut, being ridiculed, being detested, being despised, daily and for ever, and that for measures which their own understandings disapprove of. Remember there is not here any question of barbarous bands overawing a civilised and imperial city; no question of ugly Croats keeping down cultivated Italians; it is but a question of French gentlemen and French peasantry in uniform acting in opposition to other French gentlemen and other French peasants without uniform. Already there has been talk (I do not say well-founded, but still the matter was named) of breaking two or three hundred officers, for speaking against the Orleans decrees. Do you fancy that can be done every day? Do you imagine that a Parliament, whatever its nominal functions may be (remember those of the old régime), speaking the sense of the people about the question of the day, in a time of convulsion, and in a critical hour, would not be attended to, or at any rate thought of and considered, by an army taken from the people—commanded by men selected from and every day mixing with common society and very ordinary mankind? The 2nd of December showed how readily such troops will support a decided and popular President against an intriguing, divided, impotent Chamber. But such hard blows won’t bear repetition. Soldiers—French soldiers, I take it especially, from their quickness and intelligence, are neither deaf nor blind. If there be truth in history or speculation, national forces can’t long be used against the nation: they are unmerciful, and often cruel to feeble minorities; they are ready now for a terrible onslaught on mere Socialists, just as of old they turned out cheerfully for awful dragonnades on the ill-starred Protestants; but once let them know and feel that everybody is against them—that they are alone, that their acts are contemned and their persons despised—and gradually, or all at once, discipline and habit surely fail, men murmur or desert, officers hesitate or disobey, one regiment is dismissed to the Cabyles, another relegated to rural solitudes; at last, most likely in the decisive moment of the whole history, the rulers, who relied only on their troops, are afraid to call them out; they hesitate, send spies and commissioners to inquire. “Vive le Gouvernement Provisoire!”—the black and roaring multitude rises and comes on; but two seconds, and the obnoxious institutions are lost in the flood; nothing is heard but the cry of the hour, sounding shrill and angry over the waste of Revolution—“Vive le Diable!” With such a force behind them, a French Parliament, of whatever nature, with whatever written duties, is, if at the head of the movement, in the critical hour, apt to be stronger than the strongest of the Barons.
Nor do I concur with those who censure the President for “recommending” avowedly the candidates he approves. It is a part of the great question, How is universal suffrage to be worked successfully in such a country as France? The peasant proprietors have but one political idea, that they wish the Prince to govern them;—they wish to vote for the candidate most acceptable to him, and they wish nothing else. Why is he wrong in telling them which candidate that is?
Still, no doubt, the reins are now strained a great deal too tight. It is possible, quite possible, that a majority in this Parliament may be packed, but what I would impress on you is that it can’t always be packed. Sooner or later constituencies who wish to oppose the Government will, in spite of maires and préfets, elect the opposition candidate: it is in the nature of any, even the least vigorous system of popular election, to struggle forwards and progressively attain to some fair and reasonable correspondence with the substantial views and opinions of the constituent people.
I therefore fall back on what I told you before—my essential view or crotchet about the mental aptitudes and deficiencies of the French people. The French, said Napoleon, are des machines nerveuses.
The point is, can their excitable, volatile, superficial, overlogical, uncompromising character be managed and manipulated as to fit them for entering on a practically uncontrolled system of Parliamentary Government? Will not any large and omnipotent Assembly resemble the stormy Constituent and the late Chamber, rather than the business-like, formal, ennui-diffusing Parliament to which in our free and dull country we are felicitously accustomed? Can one be so improved as to keep down a riot? I foresee a single and but a single objection. I fancy, indeed I know, that there is a school of political thinkers not yet in possession of any great influence, but, perhaps, a little on the way thereto, which has improved or invented a capital panacea, whereby all nations are, within very moderate limits of time, to be surely and certainly fitted for political freedom; and that no matter how formed—how seemingly stable—how long ago cast and constructed, be the type of popular character to which the said remedy is sought to be applied. This panacea is the foundation or restoration of provincial municipalities. Now, I am myself prepared to go a considerable length with the school in question. I do myself think, that a due and regular consideration of the knotty points of paving and lighting, and the deciding in the last resort upon them, is a valuable discipline of national character. It exercises people’s minds on points they know, in things of which there is a test. Very few people are good judges of a good Constitution; but everybody’s eyes are excellent judges of good light; every man’s feet are profound in the theory of agreeable stones. Yet I can’t altogether admit, nevertheless, that municipalities are the sufficient and sole, though they may be very likely an essential, pre-requisite of political freedom. There is the great instance of Hindostan to the contrary. The whole old and national system of that remarkable country—a system in all probability as ancient as the era of Alexander, is a village system; and one so curious, elaborate, I fancy I might say so profound, that the best European observers—Sir Thomas Munro, and that sort of people—are most strenuous for its being retained unimpaired. According to them, the village hardly heard of the Imperial Government, except for the purpose of Imperial taxation. The business of life through that whole vast territory has always been practically determined by potails1 and parish-vestries, and yet nevertheless and in spite of this capital and immemorial municipal system, our subjects, the Hindoos, are still slaves and still likely to be slaves; still essentially slavish, and likely, I much fear, very long indeed to remain so. It is therefore quite certain that rural and provincial institutions won’t so alter and adapt all national characters, as to fit all nations for a Parliamentary Constitution; consequently, the onus probandi is on those who assert that it will so alter and mould the French. Again, I assure you that the French do think of paving and lighting; not enough, perhaps, but still they have begun. The country is, as you know, divided into departments, arrondissements, and communes; in each of these there is a council, variously elected, but, in all cases, popularly and from the district, which has the sole control over the expenditure of the particular locality for every special and local purpose, and which, if I am rightly informed, has, in theory, at least, the sole initiative in every local improvement. The defect, I fancy, is that in the exercise of these, considerable bodies are hampered and controlled by the veto and supervision of the central authority. The rural councils discuss and decide what in their judgment should be then done and what money should be so spent; the better sort of the agricultural population have much more voice in the latter than have the corresponding class in England, in the determination and imposition of our own country rate; but it is the central authority which decides whether such proposals and recommendations shall in fact be carried out. In a word, the provinces have to ask leave of the Parisian Ministry of the Interior. Now I admit this is an abuse. I should maintain that elderly gentlemen with bald heads and local influence ought to feel that they, in the final resort, settle and determine all truly local matters. Human nature likes its own road, its own bridge, its own lapidary obstacles, its own deceptive luminosity. But I ask again, can you fancy that these luxuries, to whatever degree indulged in, alter and modify in any essential particular, the levity and volatility of the French character? How much light to how much logic? How many paving stones to how much mobility? I can’t foresee any such change. And even if so, what in the meantime?
We are left them, I think, to deal with the French character pretty much as we find it. What stealthy, secret, unknown, excellent forces may, in the wisdom of Providence, be even now modifying this most curious intellectual fabric, neither you nor I can know or tell. Let us hope that they may be many. But if we indulge, and from the immense records of revolutionary history, I think, with due distrust, we may legitimately and even beneficially indulge, in system-building and speculation, we must take the data which we have, and not those which we desire or imagine. Louis Napoleon has proposed a system: English writers by the thousand (if I was in harness instead of holiday-making I should be most likely among them) proclaim his system an evil one. What then? Do you know what Father Newman says to the religious reformers, rather sharply, but still well: “Make out first of all where you stand—draw up your creed—write down your catechism”? So I answer to the English eloquence: “State first of all what you would have—draw up your novel system for the French Government—write down your political Constitution”. Don’t criticise but produce; do not find fault but propose—and when you have proposed upon theory and have created upon paper, let us see whether the system be such a one as will work, in fact, and be accepted by a wilful nation in reality—otherwise your work is nought.
And mind, too, that the system to be sketched out must be fit to protect the hearths and homes of men. It is easy to compose polities if you do but neglect this one essential condition. Four years ago, Europe was in a ferment with the newest ideas, the best theories, the most elaborate, the most artistic Constitutions. There was the labour, and toil, and trouble of a million intellects, as good, taken on the whole, perhaps, as the world is likely to see,—of old statesmen, and literary gentlemen, and youthful enthusiasts, all over Europe, from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean, from the frontiers of Russia to the Atlantic Ocean. Well, what have we gained? A Parliament in Sardinia! Surely this is a lesson against proposing politics which won’t work, convening assemblies that can’t legislate, constructing executives that aren’t able to keep the peace, founding Constitutions inaugurated with tears and eloquence, soon abandoned with tears and shame; beginning a course of fair auguries and liberal hopes, but one from whose real dangers and actual sufferings a frightened and terrified people, in the end, flee for a temporary, or may be a permanent, refuge under a military and absolute ruler.
Mazzini sneers at the selfishness of shopkeepers—I am for the shopkeepers against him. There are people who think because they are Republican there shall be no more “cakes and ale”. Aye, verily, but there will though; or else stiffish ginger will be hot in the mouth. Legislative Assemblies, leading articles, essay eloquence—such are good—very good,—useful—very useful. Yet they can be done without. We can want them. Not so with all things. The selling of figs, the cobbling of shoes, the manufacturing of nails,—these are the essence of life. And let whoso frameth a Constitution of his country think on these things.
I conclude, as I ought, with my best thanks for the insertion of these letters; otherwise I was so full of the subject that I might have committed what Disraeli calls “the extreme act of human fatuity,” I might have published a pamphlet: from this your kindness has preserved me, and I am proportionally grateful.
I am, yours,
It is much to have an exposition of Oxford usages from Oxford men. The ancient Universities of England retain from their mediæval origin a trace of the disciplina arcani:—contumelious divines reject a discriminating reviewer,—“He is not a University man, what can he know?” We with difficulty recognise the subject now that we find on every turn a basis for our arguments and an authority for our facts.
Some believe that Academical Reform is a new idea,—that the existing system of Oxford is coeval with Oxford itself,—that it was found out by Nebuchadnezzar, and is effectually confirmed by the book of Job;—that even if there have been changes, those changes have come from within;—that the authority of the Crown is an innovation of the Whigs; and that to ask a Learned Body if it have money and if it keep its statutes is a “Liberal outrage” and “a judgment for the great Rebellion”. But this is not so. A very little history, a very small number of facts, will prove conclusively that Reform in Oxford is very orthodox; that it flourished especially in the most palmy days of the most palmy Anglicanism; that it was formerly superintended by the straitest doctor of the straitest sect; that if Queen Victoria asks questions, King Charles “The Martyr” issued edicts; that a Commission to inquire—whether legal or illegal—finds at least a precedent in a previous Commission to enjoin.
“Many of the old statutes being grown out of use,” says the contemporary annalist under the year 1633, “by the change of Religion, and others also by long neglect and discontinuance, and some never rightly understood, and all so mingled and confounded, that it was very hard to say which of them were in force and which not, and yet all the Students bound to keep them under their corporal oaths, if not at their first matricculation then at their taking of degrees;—divers attempts were made to digest them into a new body, to the end that every one might know what was to be done and what was not.” Many of these attempts were made when the Earl of Pembroke was Chancellor, but these never prospered, and the great work, as it is called in the documents of the time, lay unfinished till the accession of Laud to the Supreme authority in the University. That remarkable prelate—whom Carlyle has depreciatingly termed “a College Tutor of the first magnitude,”—took extreme interest in the matter, was concerned in some of the previous unsuccessful efforts, and appears from the evidence to have formed very sharp opinions on the most minute points of Scholastic regulation. He immediately on his accession to the Chancellorship began, accordingly, to agitate for what we should now term Academical Codification and Reformation, and with unparalleled good fortune soon obtained the very utmost that he could desire. At a Convocation held in August, 1635, the learned authorities of the University, by a remarkable delegation of their legislative functions, agreed to be subject to and to obey whatever laws the Archbishop, who was much praised, might in the plenitude of his wisdom think it expedient to draw up for them.1 And this it seems by Laud’s own account passed without a single dissentient voice. The Archbishop, who was never accused of indolence or want of regulative activity, did not let the matter sleep; he took for his basis the abortive labours of the previous reformers, and in a short time sent down an entire and digested Code, and directed his subordinate, the Vice-Chancellor, “to declare and publish to the University and every member thereof, that the Statutes now printed,” meaning his own Code, “are and shall be the Statutes by which the University shall be governed for this year; viz., till the Feast of St. Michael, which shall be in the year of our Lord, 1635,” and for that year, which was intended to be a year of trial, he did not think it necessary to require any confirmation of his enactments from the University itself—nor from any authority superior to his own. During that year various objections of detail were made to the Code, which is emphatically a Code of detail, and various suggestions were made to the Archbishop for its amendment, some of which he complied with, but most of which it would rather seem he rejected.
What now remained, was to get this Code finally received and obeyed at Oxford. It seems to have struck the Archbishop that the resolution of Convocation, whereby he was empowered to draw up a “sanam epitomen” of statutes, and thereupon enact and confirm it by his own fiat and authority, was, to say the least of it, a resolution of extremely questionable efficacy: it is now clear, and could not even then have been much doubted, that a corporation—whether literate or illiterate—could scarcely delegate their power of making Bye-laws to a single subordinate legislator, and therefore Laud probably felt it requisite to have for his own Statutes some authority which should secure the respect and obedience of succeeding generations. The obvious course was to obtain a vote of the corporate body—to propose and pass the whole body of Statutes in the usual manner in the regular University Convocation. But this did not suit the Archbishop; a man of his temper—(for though he is now commonly thought at Oxford to be a martyr and a saint, he was ever deemed in his own age a man of imperious and overweening disposition)—could hardly brook that the results of his care and genius and industry should be discussed and criticised and perhaps rejected by a large and popular assembly. Moreover, there was a Puritan minority—a small one certainly—but very zealous, which would perhaps debate, certainly hint evil, and possibly destroy the éclat, unanimity, and glory of the proceeding by voting against the entire enactment. Accordingly, the Archbishop, seeking a more certain and effectual confirmation, procured, by his influence with King Charles, the issue of a Royal Commission, composed of various then important persons, such as Dr. Bancroft, Bishop of London, Sir John Coke, the principal Secretary of State, and other gentlemen now forgotten, who were charged to bring down the new Code to Oxford, and to require its reception by the University under pain of the royal displeasure. With that view Laud sealed the “volume” with his own seal as Metropolitan, with the University seal then in his custody as Chancellor, and the great seal having been also duly affixed, the whole was delivered to the Commissioners. “These,” says Wood, “coming to Oxford on the 21st of June, 1636, bringing his Majesty’s letters with them, dated the 12th of the same month, a Convocation was celebrated the day following in St. Mary’s chancel, wherein all the Heads of Houses, Regents and Non-regents being present, the said Commissioners were conducted thereto by one of the bedells from the Sacellum Vestiarium, commonly called Adam Brom’s chapel, and being all seated near to the Vice-Chancellor, Sir John Coke delivered his Majesty’s letters to the Vice-Chancellor, which he receiving with obeisance, delivered to the registrar to be read with an audible voice to Convocation. Therein it appeared that it was his Majesty’s pleasure, ‘that all the Heads of Houses under their hands should accept of the said Statutes, as the rule by which they should be governed and govern, and likewise to bind themselves upon oath to the observance of the said Statutes,’ in the same manner as they formerly had done to the other loose and confused body.” And then the seals were exhibited, and the enactment and confirmation by Laud as Chancellor and Metropolitan, and under the before-mentioned resolution, were announced, and also the enactment and confirmation by his Majesty de jure coronæ, after which Sir John Coke made “a grave speech in English,” praising his Majesty and the Chancellor, and demonstrating from the nature of the prerogative the “full authorisation and absolute necessity” of submission to the laws so presented by him on behalf of the Crown; to which the Vice-Chancellor replied “in an accurate oration in Latin, and praised the munificence of the prince, and the care and trouble of the Archbishop”; whereupon the Heads of Houses “received and embraced” the book, and swore to observe it; and with that recognition of royal authority the proceedings terminated, without any vote of Convocation or regular assent of the University to those laws (for they are still the Corpus Juris of Oxford), which are now said by the successors of those same Heads of Houses to be wholly removed from the just inquiry of the Crown, and to have sole reference to a subject-matter beyond the sphere of the legitimate Prerogative.
The language of the different actors on the two occasions runs in remarkable contrast. “I will not,” says Lord John Russell in the present day, “enter upon the question of the legality of a Commission. Had it been intended to exercise power going beyond inquiry and report, such a question might enter into consideration. But the present Commission will be a Commission to receive evidence and report opinions, without power to determine any question, or to prescribe any course;” which gentle intention the Bishop of Exeter could not see without the “deepest concern and astonishment,” and the Heads of Houses describe as “of the nature of an unconstitutional proceeding,” impairing “the rights and liberties of her Majesty’s subjects”. So speaks the nineteenth century, even in Oxford, with a democratic voice; but hear the seventeenth.
“That,” we quote Sir John Coke, “which commands in chief, and which no reason can withstand, is his Majesty’s sovereign power, by which those Statutes (as you see) are both enacted and confirmed. Him we all acknowledge to be our Supreme Governour, both of Church and Commonwealth, over all causes and persons, and to his Supremacy and Allegiance we are all obliged by oath. This, then, we must build upon as an axiom and Fundamental Rule of Government, that all our Laws and Statutes are the King’s laws, and that none can be enacted, changed, or abrogated without him;” and after a little, “But for Universities and Colleges, they are the rights of Kings, in a very peculiar manner; for all their Establishments, Endowments, Privileges, and Orders, by which they subsist and are maintained, are derived from Regal power; and as it is your greatest honor, so it is your greatest safety, that now this body of your laws, as well as your privileges and immunities, are established, ratified, and confirmed by the King”; which oration the Rubric-bishop of that day calls “a weighty speech, befitting the occasion”; and which laws the Vice-Chancellor received as a “Pandect,” and the Heads of Houses as “Leges æternæ”—the imperative Proclamation of an ordinance for ever.
Notwithstanding the enactment of several Novels, many of which are in point of legality very dubious, the Code which was thus enacted still remains, as it was intended to be, the Pandect of the University of Oxford. We see therefore that the law now in force, whether obsolete or not, is quite certainly anything but immemorial: that it is by no means very ancient: that it originated in times on no account entitled to a religious respect: that it began in a Reform—the last origin, we suppose, in which Sir Robert Inglis is likely to discern anything that is venerable.
Moreover the very circumstances which the annalist indicates as suggesting the enactment of the Laudian Code exist as much now as they did then: some of the laws—most of them we should say—are “grown out of use”; the more important parts of the system are fallen into neglect—much is in decay, more obsolete, much impossible—everybody is bound under his “corporal oath” to perform what he never attempts and to refrain from exactly that which he habitually performs. What is law is not done, and what is done is not law. It will be easy to show this at length in detail:—the only difficulty is one of selection; for the Report of the Commissioners provides us with materials that are as abundant as they are interesting.
It would not be fair to select any of the portions of the Laudian Code retained from older times, which were perhaps only intended to be formal, and which seem never to have been carried out even as mere formalities. It would be tedious to raise a laugh at an academical jargon. Thus to become a Bachelor of Arts, a man was to attend the “variations in the Parvis and respond under the determining Bachelor”—which were scholastic disputations derived from a mediæval period when philosophical argument was a pecuniary pursuit, and it was a gain to be, in the simple sense of the words, a “sophist” and a “wrangler”—so, for the Master’s degree, it is enacted that a candidate should solemnly determine in Lent, should be a respondent in the quodlibet disputations, the respondent or opponent in Augustines, and read six formal lectures, and afterwards to pass the vesperial disputations, an exercise of apparent length, at the end of which the Moderator is “to propound to each of the inceptors an antinomy or two, to be reconciled by them; and when these have been reconciled, he shall put an end to the disputations in a short speech,” which amicable adjustment is with great judgment omitted in disputations of Theologians, whereat the Vice-Chancellor is “to apportion the period for argument to the several opponents, and cut short the thread of the arguments at his discretion.”
But these enactments were even then falling into desuetude, and it is simply going the way of all the earth if the course of instruction and examination, which the Laudian Code plainly regards as practical, has shared the fate of that which it seems to admit to be obsolete. If there was any point to which Laud attached special importance, it was to the regularity and efficiency of the Professorial lectures. Both his “History” and his “Code” perpetually allude to it. “Because,” says he,1 “the man who should prefer to climb by the precipice to the pinnacle of elevation, though there are stairs by which to mount, seems to court a fall, it is ordained that scholars of the faculty of the Liberal arts, shall, before they aspire to the B.A.’s degree, thereon be bound to bestow four full years in the study of those arts within the University (not in any man’s private house, but boarding and living without evasion in some College or Hall), and diligently to attend the public lectures as the Statutes require, that is to say, during the first year Grammar and Rhetoric, during the second those in Logic and Moral Philosophy, and during the third and fourth, those in Logic, Moral Philosophy, and the Greek language;” and in succeeding sections the Code strays into ridiculous minutiæ in elaborately enacting where and how the Students are to stand—when they are to be allowed to move—when they must suffer in silence—exactly when the Professor is to speak, exactly for how long, and exactly with what tone of voice, and exactly with what rapidity of utterance. But vain are laws against the indolence of mankind. In matter of fact, the Professors during a very long period have ceased to lecture at all. Gibbon observed in the last century, that they had relinquished the “pretence” of it, and the practice can scarcely be said to have been since his time revived. A very great and very notorious professor, like the late Dr. Arnold, may draw a very large audience, especially to Inaugural or Introductory lectures; a clever man may induce some of the more idle or literate of the elder residents to take advantage of his best instructions occasionally; but for any general influence on the Undergraduates, for any instruction which they give to the people to whom the Statutes refer, to the Students who go to Oxford to learn, the Professors might just as well be eloquent in Kamtschatka.
Again, the fate of the theoretical course of examination has been exactly that of the theoretical course of instruction. Laud gives the following account of the system by which he designed to supply the defects of the scholastic argumentations which were even in that age becoming impossible: “The examination is not to be in philosophical subjects merely, to which limits the narrow learning of the last age was confined, but also on matters of philology, and a principal object of inquiry with the examiners will be, what facility the several persons have of expressing their thoughts in Latin. For it is our will that no person should be admitted to the Bachelorship of Arts but those who can with consistency and readiness, and still less to the Master’s degree but those who can with suitableness and aptitude, express their thoughts in Latin on matters of daily occurrence.” This is not exactly the standard of linguistic information now necessary for a common degree.
But badly as the University has observed her Statutes, her very laxity seems scrupulous when compared with the scandalous evasions of her colleges. The Duke of Wellington, it may be remembered, publicly defended the present usages of Oxford, by alleging, that though perhaps hardly in conformity with the wants and ideas of the present age, they were strictly and literally pursuant to the deliberate wills of ancient founders and the coincident directions of subsequent benefactors. An excellent example of this rigid observance may be found in the history of the college of All Souls—which is one of the most conspicuous in Oxford, and the one about which a stranger is, on the whole, the most likely to ask information. Now if he wishes to know how many people are taught in that splendid building, and on how many subjects, he will learn that no one is there instructed in anything. The college does not receive any Undergraduates,1 and the revenues are devoted to the maintenance and support of various gentlemen of aristocratic birth, and by no means preceptive habits, who are called Fellows, and though mostly pursuing their agricultural avocations in remote parts of England, occasionally reside for a term or two in the University, but who have never had any idea of studying anything at those periods. We feel sure our readers must have a high respect for the intelligent founder of so beneficent an institution, so conspicuously elevating perhaps twenty gentlemen above the irksome occupations of defiled mortality:—they will learn with regret, that the founder had no idea of the kind at all. The Fellows according to his design were to be “poor and indigent,” and none were to be chosen save those, “who having the first clerical tonsure, are qualified and disposed for the priesthood, are of free condition and born in lawful wedlock, and well adorned with good qualities and character, and are anxious to make progress in study, and are really making such progress”. It is curious that this is one of the institutions which the Heads of Houses in their Report to the Duke of Wellington particularly set themselves to defend. They observe, “The several colleges in Oxford have been founded at various times from one to six centuries ago, in some few instances by Royal but chiefly by private munificence. They have exercised an important and salutary influence on the discipline and the education of the University. But it should be observed that they have not been usually founded, or in all cases endowed, for the education of youth, but for higher purposes.” In the case of All Souls these higher purposes are remarkable. The college was founded in the 15th century by a certain Archbishop Chichele, who had taken a great share in instigating King Henry the Fifth to declare war against France, and who in his old age was not unnaturally repentant and sorrowful at the amount of the useless suffering that he had caused. According to the ideas of those times, a certain reparation was still in his power: the souls of some of those who were killed in the war that he had stirred up might still be in purgatory, and might (he imagined) be more speedily released from that terrible region if a continual intercession were made for them on earth. He therefore established a Chantry, the Fellows of which are by his Statute expressly directed to pray, “not so much to ply therein the various sciences and faculties, as with all devotion to pray for the souls of glorious memory of Henry the Fifth, lately King of England and France, his own illustrious progenitor, and the Lord Thomas Duke of Clarence, and the other lords and lieges of his realm of England, whom in his own and in his father’s times the havoc of that warfare hath drenched with the Bowl of bitter death, and also for the souls of all the faithful departed;” and this Chantry, from the last clause, is called “All Souls,” and this devotional service is the “higher purpose” which the Fellows of the college, according to the Heads of Houses, are bound to subserve.
An almost parallel instance is presented by Lincoln College, founded by a certain Richard Fleming, a renegade Wickliffite, who designed to root out and destroy “the pestiferous sect which attacks the sacraments, estates, and possessions of the Church,” and wished in this, his foundation, to train up missionary theologians to preach continually against the new doctrines, and who directed that any Fellow tainted with these ideas should “be cast out, like a diseased sheep, from the Fold of his College”; and yet the whole college is now inhabited merely by “diseased sheep”; no one not tainted with the ideas which the college was to extirpate has the most contemptible chance of obtaining entrance within its walls: no one not adhering to the “pestiferous sect” has for 200 years derived benefit from its emoluments; the revenues of the renegade have been perverted to the uses of the creed which he relinquished; the man of most note, bred within the walls of his school, has been John Wesley; the votes of all that are educated there go quite unanimously to “the tainting of sheep,” to the maintenance of Sir Robert Inglis, and the extirpation of Dr. Wiseman.
It is altogether idle to affirm that a Commission, which has brought to the public notice facts like these, was either unnecessary or uncalled for. The University magnates are in a dilemma: either it is their duty to observe their Statutes, and the inquiry was right, because they don’t, or the Statutes must be modified to suit the public convenience, and the public have a right to see that, in fact, they do suit it. The resident authorities put it the other way: they argue, “We ought not to be inquired into, because we keep our Statutes, and we have adapted ourselves to the age because we don’t”. But this is nonsense; and clergymen should not want to have at once the advantage of performing their duty, and the gratification of neglecting it.
Nor must we be met by the dilatory plea that the present was not the time, because the University is reforming itself. It may be disputable how far even the intentions of the local Government are so meritorious as is alleged. But that may pass, for the labours of the Commission have elicited a fact which renders discussion of any other point quite irrelevant. It is very doubtful if the University can reform itself: perhaps the better opinion is that it cannot. It has always been regarded as pretty certain that the Colleges could not, by any act of theirs, dispense with the duties and obligations imposed by their Statutes; but it was only curious inquirers that knew how remarkable was the position of the University itself, and how disputable was its power to re-model itself from within. From the brief sketch which we gave a short while ago of the events attending the enactment of the Laudian Code, it will be clear how different were its circumstances from those attending common academical legislation, or the customary enactment of a bye-law by an ordinary corporation. The idea at the time certainly was that its contents were imposed by Royal authority,—that the enacting energy (so to speak) was in the fiat of the Crown, and that a mere acceptance and declaration of obedience was all that could be required from the subject University, and the plausible idea has accordingly been suggested, that the Code, in fact, is rather a charter emanating from the Crown, and received by the Corporation, than a bye-law enacted by the Corporation itself of its own will and by its own power. So sound a lawyer as the present Chief Justice of England gave, when at the bar, a distinct opinion that such was the fact; and if so, there is no doubt whatever that the University would be quite unable, of its own authority, to alter an iota of what it had accepted from the “munificence” of Royalty; the election has been made: and if the University have subjected herself to a statutory yoke, she must petition the authority which imposed those Statutes, and desire to be relieved from their oppression. We only need to prove the existence of a doubt: the principle, it will be conceded, of a great national institution like Oxford, ought to be free from every shadow of question; people ought not to be left in doubt whether the greatest educational establishment in England is not conducted on an illegal system, is not guilty of a breach of trust, and is not governed by persons who take oaths to abstain from what they do, and constantly to do that which they constantly refrain from doing. Moreover, the language of the Statutes themselves is very much in favour of the doctrine of Lord Campbell, and the consequent inability of the University to deviate in the least from their provisions. Thus one section says expressly that no dispensation, whether total or partial, should be proposed concerning any Statute or Decree, framed, or to be framed at the command or suggestion of the Royal authority, unless a change or relaxation to some extent has been expressly enjoined by Royal authority. And another denies any “power of explanation” to Statutes similarly enacted; Laud himself considered them to be enacted for ever, and would most certainly have imagined that the Puritanical “sin of rebellion” had strayed into the University of Legitimacy, if he could have been informed that there was even now a proposal to amend the ordinances that were to endure for the Platonic year—the Leges Æternæ—the Leges Regia Auctoritate confirmatæ et sancitæ.
The Commission, therefore, justifies itself; it has brought to light these facts; it has shown us that the present system must be defended,—not by eloquence or by poetry—not by an appeal to the wisdom of King Alfred, a rhapsody on the great Chichele, or a playful panegyric on Queen Philippa—not by a mystical scruple as to deviating from the directions of any one deceased, because what is now done does not accord with the directions of any one who is dead—not by a eulogium on recent reforms by the resident authorities, for it may well be that those reforms are illegal, and those authorities guilty of perjury—not by erudite pathos on the academical attainments of the martyred Laud, for the archbishop’s Statutes are hourly broken, and he would hardly know his own University again; but by coarser pleas and less winning topics,—by the doctrine of desuetude, the evils of a Pharisaic conservatism, the doctrine of utility, the change of religion, the change of politics, the unalterable necessity of alteration, and the mere impossibility of standing still in an ever-shifting and transitory world.
What is said of the Commission having troubled the peace of the University, we own we take very lightly. Indeed, it does not seem that the place has ever been allowed to enjoy an over-tranquil or untroubled calm. “That,” commences perhaps abruptly the learned annalist, “the University of Oxford flourished after the going away of Grimbald and the preferment of the other Professors, many there are, I persuade myself, that doubt it not, and especially in the reign of King Alfred.” As Oxford has been disquieted so long, she may be disquieted still. We doubt not that the University will continue to flourish after the advent of the Bishop of Norwich—the departure of Heads of Houses, perhaps as notorious as Grimbald—and the preferment of unscrutable Professors, equally profound with the most so of his contemporaries.
But if the Report of the Commission justifies the Commission, the evidence taken before the Commissioners in some sense justifies the University: Oxford is a fascinating city. Here are a very considerable number of gentlemen, all of them Reformers—some of them opposed in spirit to the characteristic theories of the University—none of them in the least representing the school with whom it is connected in the popular imagination—all of them abounding in attainments—many of them able—some with a large knowledge of the world—and they are all of them fond of the place. They all look back to their residence there with an evident and singular fondness. They all feel too, that the effect of the system on their minds has been strong; they are conscious that they are materially different from what they would have been if they had not been educated at all, or been educated elsewhere, and not any one hints that the training of Oxford has not been in his own case beneficial. Not one can suggest even an alteration without evident and heartfelt remonstrances. To alter Oxford is to alter their own youth. A place of education so winning and so effective may have many failings, but it must have great merits. We hope to show that, though we wish much change, we can at any rate in some degree, though, no doubt, incompletely, appreciate a few of the qualities that have gained the affections and obtained the gratitude of so many superior minds.
Very odd, indeed, at first sight, is the received English theory, that as places of education Oxford and Cambridge are both perfection. The schemes of tuition seem so different. Cambridge teaches her students the discoveries of Cambridge men; she occupies them with great P. and little q., with Airey’s tracts, perplexing dynamics, the last reachings of the Newtonian deduction, the best results of the best teaching of Francis Bacon. Oxford, on the other hand, disdains every approach to novelty. Till the time when, thirty years ago, the much-reviled Dr. Hampden introduced an academical examination in the writings of Bishop Butler, not one of her most influential pursuits owed anything whatever to her own students: she taught exclusively from authors who were already very old when she was herself young; according to the admission tacitly suggested by the course of her tuition—she had not herself, any more than the rest of the modern world, contributed any considerable element to human knowledge, that it was desirable to introduce into common education. Surely these diverse systems, one thinks at first sight, cannot both be right; if Cambridge is right in receiving the modern learning, then it should seem that Oxford is wrong in rejecting it; if Oxford rightly rejects it, then Cambridge is unwise in accepting and inculcating it. Is this true? We regret that we cannot answer the question save by a tedious disquisition, bare controversy, and mere principle.
Ποι̑ καὶ πόθεν; what is a University for? unless we know with some accuracy that which we wish to have done, we can scarcely expect to discuss satisfactorily whether it is done for us or not. It is quite clear, even from the blue-book before us, that on this point there is no agreement. The theories there suggested are very various; and the only gratifying circumstance is, that throughout the whole medley no one gentleman is bold enough to avow an adherence to a thoroughgoing theory of negation. Even the Fellows of All Souls decline, we observe, to maintain explicitly that the object of a University is exactly to do nothing.
A very common notion is, that the Universities are places for study, and this not for the study of youth and semi-men, but of grown-up gentlemen and bearded scholars. And this was most certainly the general design of the Founders of colleges. These great institutions were founded for the benefit of what are called in this age, poor scholars. As we have seen in the case of All Souls, so in general, the object was to train a band or order of rigid, ascetic, semi-monastic students, who were to spend their lives in acquiring the learning of the age. Nor perhaps was this idea perfectly unsuitable to the purposes and wants of that period. In mediæval society Learning was more than at any other time divorced from the finer and subtler, and given over to the coarse and voluntary energies of the human mind. The learning of that age was analogous to the learning of positive law. It was necessary to master a huge traditional theology, abounding in decisions, technicalities, and positive enactments, which no one could know without study; but which any man of energy and moderate ability could be quite certain of in some degree acquiring; and wherein a strong-natured man of poor parents—used to a hard life, with the dread of poverty behind him, and the hereditary energies of the working people within him—could not, and we see in history in general did not, fail to acquire great information. There was no poetry, no fine literature, no imaginative relaxation, in the scholarship of that time: the bulk of the mighty tomes in which it is enshrined warns the experienced eye that he must not seek in them the record of the rarer thoughts or more elevated moments of human nature—for these come seldom and are soon ended; but of the laborious vigour, the coarse understanding, the deductive reason, which can be used when we will, which proceed on definite assumptions, which therefore lead infallibly to definite conclusions. But this is not to be thought of for the colleges now. The canon law is gone by, the mediæval theology is food for the inferior animals. The finer classics—the lighter thoughts—the more delicate fancies—the most evanescent shades of meaning and of language, these are what we now call scholarship: and we cannot expect to train any great number of persons in any age to spend their lives on these. Keen excitements are at hand, and carry off into the great and busy world the very minds whose exquisite structure is the best adapted for literary discrimination. Those who really enjoy the best books take an interest in human life, concerning which those books are entirely written; and it is not likely that such will be content to hear in the cloister the secondhand stories of others, when the gates are open, the train passes by, and in an hour they can walk in Parliament Street themselves. A strange timidity, an instinctive pedantry, an inaptitude for common life—may force them back again within the narrow cell. But this is painful and rare.
In England of course this is especially true. We are not Germans, who care for what is not. Take up the Life of Niebuhr that was translated the other day, and it is surprising to see the eagerness with which he withdraws from the living realities of life—not to the exquisite fancies or the profounder imaginations or the subtler observations of the higher orders, which might and do rest and invigorate and refresh the worn and troubled mind; but to the driest technicalities—to grammar and philology, to Basque refreshments and Polynesian recreations; and what is more strange still, he does not feel that his taste is queer or extraordinary. He seems conscious that in degree he feels it more powerfully than those who surround him. But the thing itself, the preference of what has been to what is, of what is abstract to what is fleshly, of what is in the grammar to what is in the ledger, the love of letters in general, and the contempt for £ s. d., seems to him the natural notion common to all that are awakened to real enjoyment—that are not of the earth, and earthy. In such a country as that it might be well to afford facilities for a race of students. We might hope that they would be active and cultivated, and ardent and happy. But here in a land of larger enjoyments, and better opportunities, and bolder energies, it would be entailing misery on many to bring up many to a life of research. The taste is rare, and a library of lofty volumes is the worst of prisons to such as think it a prison at all; it is “hard labour” without the stimulus: the bread-mill moves, but what is there “going on” in the Bodleian? Nor is Natural science or Mathematical science better adapted to the inclinations of any great number of common Englishmen; on the contrary, we respect, and perhaps justly, fine scholarship more than a familiarity with cubic equations, or the details of the dissecting-room. We must not try to fill many buildings with naturalists, nor did Providence mean many Londoners to be devotees to the “factorial integral”. In attempting by large bounties (and such would be the resource of the Universities) to increase much the number of life-long students, we should but add to the supply of stupid and indifferent works, to the list of authors without a call. Why should we pay people to compose A Structural Dissertation on the Walls of Athens, Abstractitudes of the Sciences, Thoughts on Tissue, or A Biography of Greek Heroes anterior to Agamemnon? Some might write more agreeably; but these, if the partisans of the Students—a considerable number of estimable people—had but their way, these and such as these would be the labours of most inhabitants of Magdalene and Merton, which surely were not built for what is so superfluous.
A view exactly opposite to this has been advanced by an intelligent gentleman, who having recently become a legislator, seems entitled to very special attention. The member for Kidderminster, Mr. Lowe, regards Oxford as a “preparation for Australia”. He tells us that he has seen in the colonies Oxford men placed in situations in which they had reason “bitterly to regret that their costly education, while making them intimately acquainted with remote events and distant nations, had left them in utter ignorance of the laws of Nature, and placed them under immense disadvantages in that struggle with her which they had to maintain”. And we have no doubt that this is so; nor do we deny that the present system of Oxford is open to the sarcasm which is intended. We are not going to argue that there are now at Oxford sufficient facilities for the acquisition of natural science: indeed we hold rather strongly that these facilities might and ought to be somewhat increased. But if Mr. Lowe has, as we collect, a notion or imagination that a University ought to fit men for colonial life—that it professes to do so—that if it neglects to do so, as it does, a sentence of inefficiency is immediately due, we dissent. We imagine that in a hard and earnest conflict with material and brute nature, a literary education can never give any superiority. Take the case of a goldfinder who spends his day bent double grubbing in the bed of a stream for imperceptible dust,—of what use is literature to him? Tacitus won’t keep him from cold, nor is the Principia a preservative from damp. The thing there is the knack of finding gold. All that is requisite to be known of the laws of nature is rather obvious, nor will a profounder knowledge be really of extreme advantage. If all the people in Australia were taught a thousand sciences or a thousand languages, the yield of gold would be as it was before. And so of other pursuits. A certain small and rude knowledge of outward objects is all that is commonly wanted by common practitioners, and that knowledge is apt to puzzle if there be any attempt to inculcate it systematically. Turnspits are in general ill-informed about the theory or laws of rotatory motion, nor do the cleverest people tell the time a moment quicker for understanding the works of their watches. The real education for every practical pursuit is specific—a digger wants the habit of digging—a shepherd, of keeping sheep—a mining agent should be bred in the mines. Christchurch will never prepare men for Labuan nor Oriel for the Rocky Mountains; and we suspect even from the case under consideration, that a superfluous conversancy with Sydney may much mislead a Reformer in Oxford.
A gentleman of great acuteness has adopted another theory. Mr. Clough is of opinion that the Universities are, ought to be, and must be, “mere finishing schools for the higher classes”—and apparently would reject with impartial equanimity the studious delusions of common Reformers, and the Australian advice of Mr. Lowe. Now it is quite certain that the Universities do perform the very important office hinted at rather than expressed by Mr. Clough. “If,” says Sir James Stephen, “I had the pen of Edward Gibbon, I could draw from my own early experience a picture which would form no unmeet companion for that which he has bequeathed to us of his education at Oxford. The three or four years during which I lived on the banks of the Cam, were passed in a very pleasant, though not a very cheap hotel. But if they had been passed in the Clarendon in Bond Street, I do not think that the exchange would have deprived me of any aids for intellectual discipline or for acquiring literary or scientific knowledge.” And notwithstanding many reforms and innovations, an increase of study and an inroad of private tutors, there can be no doubt at all that to very many of their youthful sojourners both Universities are much as they were. The real gain to perhaps a majority is anything but scholastic. The gentlemen of England are educated at many schools, they come to college for a year or two to learn one another’s faces and names, to unlearn the overweening notions of public schools, and the “three-cornered opinions,” as somebody calls them, of the private academy. They derive from the society of one another—from wine-parties—from the common et ceteras of college life—a certain cultivation, certain friendships, certain manners, which are a step in advance on what in each kind they previously possessed, and give them besides an excellent start in English life. The gentry of England are thus, as it is said, “finished”. They take the social type which is to last them for life. But surely this is hardly a sufficient reason for so great colleges? scarcely a sufficient account of such large structures and such enormous revenues? As Sir James says, the Clarendon would do. It is obvious that we must look elsewhere for the complete formulas of academical utility.
The Catholic Church has busied herself, as with other matters of late, so with this. Father Newman, who seems expected, or who is of himself inclined, to interfere in every matter beneath the sun, has recently and elaborately expounded a theory of Universities. We opened “The Dublin Lectures,” as they are to be called, with expectation, but we closed them with disappointment. Father Newman is a man to fail. With all his ability, and invention, and logical accuracy, there is generally in all his writings some impossible postulate, some incredible axiom, that mars the whole. So it is here. He deduces his entire theory of a University from what we had always understood to be the obsolete derivation, that it is to teach “universal knowledge”. This is odd enough. We are actually to receive from the emissaries of the Pope the very theory which twenty years ago was in vogue among certain rather advanced sectaries of the Radical philosophy. A man of some wealth and transactive ability sometimes has a family—he is struck with the importance of various subjects: he says, “There is Chemistry; what progress it makes day by day! What a scheme for making soap Dr. Dirtihands was mentioning yesterday!—my son must know Chemistry. And there is French; ‘Commong survatteel?’—my son shall know French. And there is Physiology; what an interesting topic the human frame is! We are always having diseases we can’t account for. I wonder where I caught that cold last week—my son shall know Physiology. And then too what was that when I felt so floored the other morning? I remember it was those barrister-fellows that were for me against the Brewer’s Company, and they were talking of the late Lord Chancellor, and his always giving things to his relations—what’s called Nepotism; and then a little red-headed man, who was very quick in business, said, ‘Certainly, certainly, why he’s Nepos himself’; and then everybody laughed at him, and I laughed. I wonder why we laughed? It is very unpleasant laughing when one don’t know the reason. I fancy it is something in Latin—my son shall know Latin.” And so on through all the range of the sciences; and the end is, that the young gentleman is sent to a “Seminary” near London, where everything is taught, according to the Times, “without corporal penalties,” whereat he learns at least nothing. Something of this sort, we learn, is the Catholic idea of a College. Universal information is to be diffused; all sciences, “as the term University expresses,” are to be taught; everybody is to be set to learn everything. But was it necessary to have so great an apparatus for so small a work? Is this what the Catholic Church is to do for us?—to build new lecture-rooms—to overteach a few pupils—to try, and fail, to induce mankind at large to search and seek for universal knowledge? Why did she come so far? We could do that for ourselves.
Nor must we repeat the yet more pernicious cant that education makes educated people cleverer than the uneducated. This idea is still believed in rural districts, where a good deal of conversational information is sometimes derived from reading, and where it is not known that literary men as much over-estimate the importance of literature as the currier in the legend the repulsive resources of the substance leather. But, authors and schoolmasters apart, the generality of mankind are pretty well agreed that in transactive ability, in common-sense, in industry, in energy, people who read little are at least as eminent as people who read much. “I never,” said Sir Walter Scott, “knew a Dominie that was not weak.” “Do not,” says Mr. Gilbert in his book on banking, “choose a clerk because he has studied for one of the learned professions, for that is no advantage.” No one goes to Cambridge to inquire for a cutler. A first-class scholar would, in general, be a ninth-rate man-servant. If learning is an advantage for some things, it is a disadvantage for others. What does it then do?
In our notion the object of a University education is to train intellectual men for the pursuits of an intellectual life. For though education by training or reading will not make people quicker or cleverer or more inventive, yet it will make them soberer. A man who finds out for himself all that he knows is rarely remarkable for calmness; the excitement of the discovery, and a weak fondness for his own investigations, a parental inclination to believe in their excessive superiority, combine to make the self-taught and original man dogmatic, decisive, and detestable. He comes to you with a notion that Noah was discarded in the ark, and attracts attention to it, as if it were a stupendous novelty of his own. A book-bred man rarely does this; he knows that his notions are old notions, that his favourite theories are the rejected axioms of long-deceased people: he is too well aware how much may be said for every side of everything to be very often overweeningly positive on any point.
It is of immense importance that there should be among the more opulent and comfortable classes a large number of minds trained by early discipline to this habitual restraint and sobriety. The very ignorance of such people is better than the best knowledge of half mankind. An uneducated man has no notion of being without an opinion: he is distinctly aware whether Venus is inhabited, and knows as well as Mr. Cobden what is to be found in all the works of Thucydides; but his opinionated ignorance is rather kept in check, when people as strong-headed as himself, as rich, as respectable, and much better taught, are continually avowing that they don’t at all know any of the points on which he is ready to decide. And when those who are careful have opinions, they are in general able to bear the temperate discussion of them. Education cannot ensure infallibility, but it most certainly ensures deliberation and patience. It forms the opinions of people that can form the opinions of others.
This, too, is a function which increases in difficulty with the increase of civilisation. As society goes on, life becomes more complicated, and its problems more difficult. New perplexities, new temptations, new difficulties, arise with new circumstances; every walk in life is clogged with tedious difficulties, and thronged with countless competitors, and overrun with infinite dangers. The moral problems, the political problems, the social problems, the religious problems, require a greater stress of understanding: we were in simple addition, we are in the Differential Calculus. Take the case of politics in this country now and as it was a century and a half ago. In Queen Anne’s time the question was whether the Pretender should be king,—whether Popery should be the religion of the state, and that was nearly all;—on so large an issue very inferior and illiterate minds were quite competent to form a sound judgment. Sir Roger de Coverley, for example, who believed in witchcraft, and was not a college man, was quite able to reject the Pope and receive the Queen—“God bless her”. But how the poor old gentleman would have been confounded in the present day! what would he have thought of Free-trade, Protectionism, and Caucasian Christianity? He would we fear have reflected in this wise on the General Election: “You see, though I can’t quite tell (for I am getting old) what Lord Derby has done with all his old principles, I shall vote for young John Rising, who intends to support him, for you know his father Sir John was my very old friend, and knew more of fox-hunting than any one in Worcestershire, notwithstanding some were so foolish as to think me his equal; and though the Chancellor of the Exchequer is said in London to be a Jew, I could not deny but the poor in my county was more comfortable than ever.” This was good influential reasoning in the first year of the eighteenth century, but it won’t do now. We want men to get up facts, weigh principles, suggest illustrations, appreciate arguments; and this is the use of learning.
So too in religion,—how differently are we placed now-a-days in this Babel of sects, and the deluge of criticism, from the old times, when the choice was between two or three distinct creeds, depending on common and conceded postulates, and differing only in the respective correctness of a few not too complicated deductions! Now that the postulates are gone, who is there that can estimate the insuperable task of, as it is phrased, making a religion? And in the minor subjects of taste and refinement, with the growth of literature, the increase of luxury and the advent of æsthetics, who can too highly estimate the difficulty of reviewing works of art, and criticising styles, and comprehending the German speculations? And in the practical concerns of life, though a prolonged education rather interferes than otherwise with a perfect and instinctive mastery of a narrow department, though it disqualifies men for special or mechanical labour and the petty habits of a confined routine, yet for affairs on a considerable scale, for a general estimate of general probabilities, and for changing the hand and the mind from one species of pursuit to another, a carefully-formed mind and a large foundation of diversified knowledge are indisputably wonderful and all but indispensable aids. Men who blindly and instinctively follow out and feel after the minute details of a single occupation, generally know but that one, and can learn no other. In the increasing and multiplying wealth of the world, in the various and ever-varying ramifications of human industry, it becomes necessary that some people should comprehend the general plan, while others elaborate the special minutiæ, and it is lucky that the very wealth which by its superabundance, and the complexity of its nature, renders more than anything else all this enlargement of knowledge necessary, also by getting together in single hands, secures the easy conditions, the pecuniary resources, and the youthful leisure that are the necessary pre-requisites for its extensive diffusion.
So too by common consent certain of the professions have long been called learned and literate. Not thereby meaning so much that a great deal of literary information is commonly necessary in their everyday practice, as that the tone of mind commonly produced by a calm and deliberate education, by the habit of learning, by the acquisition of abstract knowledge, is especially favourable to the best exercise of the highest faculties in their more abstruse and difficult departments. Particular portions of legal business are very properly conceived to be of this nature; the same may be true occasionally in the applications of medicine; and in many other newer and yet unclassified pursuits similar points often occur requiring the application of much knowledge, and the steady exercise of a disciplined mind.
Does Oxford accomplish this? Does it frame a type of character capable of forming the more abstruse opinions and of transacting the more severe portion of the intellectual business of the world? We can be at any rate at no loss for an answer. The materials are ample. In public life the Oxford men are conspicuous; they seem more perhaps than the pupils of any other seminary to have a very marked type running through them all, though of course modified and qualified in each by the difference of circumstances and of natural character. They appear to represent a principle, and that in itself is a stimulus to curiosity.
In some respects the character is old enough. In a few outward features, it is certainly rather like that of the mediæval student whom Chaucer sang of some four centuries ago:—
“I regret to say,” observes Dr. Arnold, “that the prevailing spirit of many Oxford men is the very opposite of liveliness.”
A certain speechlessness is still a part of the character. “You will,” says Hazlitt, “hear more good things in one day on the top of the coach, going or coming from Oxford, than in one year from all the residents in that learned seminary.” A slightly excitable lady was once asked within our hearing what she thought of the literati of Oxford: she said: “They were so stupid I could strike them”. But this is not quite conclusive. It is not good that every one should be loquacious or excitable or original: some must listen if it is meant that they should understand. Particularly the custom is to refrain from speaking on their own pursuits;—there is some story of a Head of a House who was presented to Napoleon after the peace of Amiens, and was asked on his return what was his opinion of the French Emperor. “Sir,” replied the dignitary, “you see at once he is not a University man, he talks about the classics.” Such was his opinion.
In moral and political opinions the Oxford man is quite as defined. Mr. Gladstone, to take the most marked and decisive example, is obviously and utterly different from what he would have been if educated anywhere else. He is the only considerable political Englishman who has undergone what can even by courtesy be called a philosophical training. There is about him and in all his writings and in all his speeches a certain desire for principle, a wish to have an ultimatum, a reason, an axiom from which and to which the intellectual effort may start and be referred. His first principles are rarely ours; we may often think them obscure—sometimes incomplete—occasionally quite false; but we cannot deny that they are the result of distinct thought with disciplined faculties upon adequate data, of a careful and dispassionate consideration of all the objections which occurred, whether easy or insuperable, trifling or severe. How Dr. Arnold estimates this training—still conveyed from the same text-book as in Chaucer’s time—may be read in a hundred passages of his letters and works. “We have been reading,” says he, speaking of Aristotle, “some of the Rhetoric in the sixth form this half year, and its immense value struck me again so forcibly that I could not consent to send my son to a University where he would lose it altogether, and where his whole studies would be formal merely and not real, either mathematics or philology—with nothing answering to the Aristotle and Thucydides of Oxford.” And again—“If one might wish for impossibilities I might then wish that my children might be well versed in physical science, but in due subordination to the fulness and freshness of their knowledge on all subjects. This, however, I believe cannot be; and physical science, if studied at all, seems too great to be studied ἐν παρέργῳ: wherefore rather than have it the principal thing in my son’s mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth and that the stars were so many spangles set in the firmament.” And he acted on his theory. “You may believe,” he remarks with respect to the London University, “that I have not forgotten the dear old Stagyrite in our examinations, and I hope that he will be construed and discussed in Somerset House as well as in the schools.”
In other Oxford men this is as remarkable. You cannot open the writings of the most dissimilar among them without being struck by the thoughtful element which they have in common. There is a perpetual and often quite unconscious employment of expressions and illustrations derived from the Greek, but especially from the Aristotelic philosophy—a certain accuracy in the expression of principles—and a certain keen deductiveness of understanding, which distinguish the works of men whom Nature markedly and of set purpose discriminated from each other; and this lasts their lifetime. Coleridge used to say, that if you took up a philosophical German writer, no matter whether second-rate or first-rate or fourth-rate, you would be struck with a certain carefulness of tone, a curious and guarded discrimination in the use of exact terms, a foreseeing of objections and so on, which would induce you to remark, “Really this writer is a philosopher”; whereas in fact it was only that the general style of philosophical thought was so diffused in Germany, that any man of fair ability, fair industry and fair power of imitation could easily acquire and affect it. Something of the same sort seems to exist in the very atmosphere of Oxford; for if you turn even from such great writers as Dr. Whewell, Sir John Herschel, or Mr. Mill, to the writing of even an inferior man trained on the characteristically Oxford system, you will feel at once, that although you may and will lose in vigour of originality, in variety of knowledge, in brilliancy of illustration, in liveliness of mind, yet you will gain in mere speculativeness. What theories there are will be expressed, as theories should be, with calmness, with accuracy, with dulness, with carefulness, with an anticipation of objections, after a conversancy with the ideas of what philosophers have preceded them.
On the theoretical side, therefore, we think that Oxford,—we won’t say, succeeds; nothing succeeds in this world—but fairly and with much credit approximates to valuable success. On the practical, we fancy that it wholly fails. This seems admitted in the “Evidence”. Mr. Denison, for example, who has favoured the Commissioners with some schemes for the improvement of legal education, is decidedly of opinion that at present the University man is under a disadvantage.
“The usual routine,” he says, “of what is now called a legal education is as follows: a youth of twenty-two years of age, after completing his studies at the University, comes to London to commence the study of the law. He is entered at one of the Inns of Court, is received as a pupil for a year by some eminent conveyancer, to whom he gives 100 guineas for the privilege of going daily to his chambers and seeing the business there transacted. That business is ordinarily the most technical, complicated, and difficult in the whole range of legal practice; and requires great professional knowledge and considerable experience in particular departments of the practical concerns of life. It is therefore obvious that the special knowledge there to be acquired is purely practical; and is confined to few subjects. The youth soons finds that, at the cost of 100 guineas, he has purchased the right of walking blindfold into a sort of legal jungle. Masses of papers are placed daily before him, every sheet of which contains numberless terms, as new and strange to him as the words of a foreign language, and the bare meaning of which he rarely arrives at before the clerk announces that the client has called to take the papers away. Fresh masses of papers replace those that have been thus untimely removed, and bring with them fresh grounds of vexation and despair; and thus throughout the whole year of his pupilage the youth has to struggle with difficulties, which are an hundred-fold greater than they need have been, had he been fortunate enough to have learnt the alphabet of legal science before he undertook to grapple with the most subtle, abstruse, and difficult details of its practice. This unprofitable and disgusting year at length over, the youth is doomed to go through a second year of the like probation, at the same cost and almost as unprofitably, in the chamber of a special pleader or an equity draftsman; and by the end of that year he is either so bewildered or so wearied with wandering through the seemingly endless mazes that obstruct the very approaches to his profession, that he either gives up the attempt as hopeless, and becomes a clergyman (an event of extremely common occurrence with Oxford men), or finding out that he is at last beginning to feel his way a little, hopes, by dogged perseverance, to attain, sooner or later, to a knowledge of that art which he sees very many persons of only average capacity practising with credit and success.”
The system works simply. The educated pupil prepares a draft;—the uneducated practitioner looks it over. “I do not,” he remarks, “quite see the necessity for those recitals. Did it strike you that they had any relation to the present purpose? I am afraid this operative part would give the court some trouble. Did you find any authority for giving an estate to A.B., his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns? Humph! Humph! Yes, yes, I see you’ve taken great pains with that original covenant. Yes, yes, we must put something in the place of that.” What language to a solemn gentleman who has been during three years the idol of tutors, maybe been a tutor himself, and especially from a man who never heard of Sphacteria and can’t define “distributive Justice”: no wonder if the victim thinks gently of a grammar school, or at the first opening absconds into a parsonage.
The fact is, that Oxford men want εὐστοχία,—they want intuitiveness. From a defect of liveliness, from an over-caution of understanding, they have not the ταχύ τι, the happy facility which takes hold at once and for ever of the right point or the right questions at the right moment. There is often not spring enough in the nature of such a man: he can go well in the high road of learning, but he won’t do for the cross-country exercise of human life. It puts him out. He does not like that there should be virtues not in Aristotle’s list, and it is impossible to convince him that there is anything which is not dreamed of in his philosophy. Give him time and he will generally come right, but in this hasty world who can have time? as the best speaker in a concourse of men is the man who has the best sayings there ready, so in action we must be able to act wisely at once, or else we must either do nothing or act unwisely.
In this respect the Cambridge men do better. A hard and mathematical Johnian is perhaps perfectly prepared for every abstract difficulty of active life. He may want taste and discrimination, and judgment in character, and skill in dealing with men, or art in persuading them; but in the bare application of mere principles, in the thorough mastery of appalling facts, in the technical manipulations—to speak absurdly—of any intellectual pursuit, according at least to our observation, he will never fail. Such men generally see a thing in the right light at first, and if they once get right, all the oratory which ever was or can be, all the eloquence of a private tutor, all the pathos of senior Fellow, will never induce them to swerve from their pragmatical honesty or to abate one jot of clear intellectual certainty in their dogmatic conviction. But they fail even in intellectual pursuits, when the finer faculties are required; they are good actuaries but bad metaphysicians; when they write books on thoughtful subjects they make blunders without end. Mr. Mill, we believe, somewhere says of the last generation of eminent Cambridge men—that he never heard an argument from them which was worth anything, and though this be a trifle contemptuous, yet it is certain that of late the amount of general thought on general subjects for which we are indebted to Cambridge, is immensely less than what we owe to Oxford.
Is not this really good? We asked so long ago that no reader can be asked to remember it, whether there was not something very singular in the old English idea that the educational systems of both the two old Universities were both perfect. Like most odd and old ideas, it has much truth. Is it not perhaps better that we should have one University which practically devotes itself mainly to the culture of thought, and another which devotes itself principally to the training men for the more difficult species of intellectual action? These are the two duties of a University, as we showed just now. It is perhaps good that they should be kept in a certain measure separate. Each fulfils its own task rather better, if it aim at one mainly, than if it aspire to both equally. Besides, it is to be observed that each selects out of the general society exactly those who are thought to be best fitted to excel in the requirements and studies which constitute its test and its training. A mathematician—the son perhaps of a blacksmith—goes to St. John’s; the son of a country vicar, with a taste for moral subjects and the classics, is most probably despatched to Oxford. Each is well trained; the first for the conveyancer’s chambers; the second for a rural rectory.
In two points the two Universities coincide—selecting two elements which we believe to be quite necessary for the real education of an intellectual Englishman. They both teach a compact system of learning. If we were teaching a Frenchman who is versatile, or an old Athenian who was versatility itself, this might not be of so great importance, perhaps it would not even be possible, for we question whether those unstable and changeable organisations could be kept resolutely to a narrow pursuit. With the Englishman it is different. His intelligence is slow and stubborn and sure; his memory, though retentive, is not facile; it is certain, therefore, that if you bother him with many things, he will learn none; if you do not allow him to become, as he thinks, possessed of some one acquisition, you will discontent him, and he will leave you. “It would be well,” so says a thoughtful writer,1 “to impress on the young men of the present day the value of ignorance, as well as of knowledge; to give them fortitude and courage enough to acknowledge that there are books which they have not read and sciences which they do not wish to learn, and to make them feel that one of the very greatest defects in a mind is want of unity of purpose, and that everything which betrays this betrays also want of resolution and energy.” For if this be not learned easily and early, it will be learned painfully and late. One by one, day by day, the world will strip off the pretensions and false assumptions which we may put forth, no matter how great they be. What do you do for me? she asks; and she will require a solid answer. It has been a great happiness to many that two seats of national learning have consciously or unconsciously taken each a defined course and adopted a rigid system; the one by severe training in philosophers and historians, to teach men what has been thought, the other by a discipline in the technicalities of study, to prepare men for the like technicalities of abstruser action.
The other point of substantial unanimity between Oxford and Cambridge is the collegiate system. It is well observed by a gentleman who has given evidence, that this also is suitable to the national character. There is nothing for young men like being thrown into close neighbourhood with young men; it is the age of friendship; and every encouragement should be given—every opportunity enlarged for it. Take an uncollegiate Englishman, and you will generally find that he has no friends. He has not the habit. He has his family, his business, his acquaintances, and these occupy his time. He has not been thrown during the breathing-time of human life into close connection with those who are also beginning or thinking of beginning to enter on its labours. School-friendships are childish; “after-life” rarely brings many; it is in youth alone that we can engrave deep and wise friendships on our close and stubborn texture. If there be romance in them, it is a romance which few would tear aside.
Of course also the college system, quite beside the labours of Tutors and Fellows, mainly aids in the work of education. All that “pastors and masters” can teach young people, is as nothing when compared with what young people can’t help teaching one another. Man made the school: God the playground. He did not leave children dependent upon the dreams of parents or the pedantry of tutors. Before letters were invented, or books were, or governesses discovered, the neighbours’ children, the out-door life, the fists and the wrestling sinews, the old games,—the oldest things in the world,—the bare hill and the clear river—these were education. And now, though Xenophon and sums be come, these are and remain. Horses and marbles, the knot of boys beside the schoolboy fire, the hard blows given and the harder ones received—these educate mankind. So too in youth, the real plastic energy is not in tutors or lectures or in books “got up,” but in Wordsworth and Shelley; in the books that all read because all like—in what all talk of because all are interested—in the argumentative walk or disputatious lounge—in the impact of young thought upon young thought, of fresh thought on fresh thought—of hot thought on hot thought—in mirth and refutation—in ridicule and laughter—for these are the free play of the natural mind, and these cannot be got without a college.
We admit, however, that these excellences of our elder Universities have often passed into excess—have become defects. The compact system has become exclusive, and the colleges have gained a monopoly. For although it may be quite right and quite prudent, that every one should be taught a compact system, it does not quite follow that every one should be taught the same. Although the general scheme of Oxford education, based on the old philosophy, and the more weighty classics, may still, in our notion, be rightly preserved, there will be no harm in a good sprinkling of mathematicians, in an increase of undergraduates, learned in modern philosophy, or even in a small deposit of naturalists. And though in a general way, everybody should be discouraged from learning everything, some versatile men will attain eminence in several studies, and these should have their reward. A choice between compact systems, as has been said, the good sense of our forefathers found out to be the fitting rule, and this choice which now only exists between the two systems of Oxford and Cambridge, should, without touching the rightful supremacy of the systems that are, be extended to an additional choice at Oxford and at Cambridge, between subsidiary and subordinate systems.
We shall be reminded, that this is there or thereabouts the very system which has been adopted in the recent statute passed in 1851; for by that statute three new schools were erected, in which, after evincing a certain acquaintance with the classics, a student may obtain a degree and a class by passing a sufficient examination in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, in Natural Science—meaning the sciences of classification or observation, or in Law and Modern History. And though these three schools are not by any means exactly what we should like to see them, we very willingly acknowledge that if we believed that this statute would now really work in an efficient manner, we should applaud the Heads of Houses for having actually at last proposed something that is beneficial. But we believe that this piece of legislative extension will, in practice, turn out to be wholly nugatory. It is at best a mere expression of a desire on the part of the University as to what it wishes to have learned, and as to the subjects, proficiency in which it is willing to test by examination. Now, if the University were crowded with eager and disinterested students ready immediately to acquire and be examined in any branch of knowledge which the authorities of the place might indicate or mention, no reform would be more effectual. But more potent inducements are needed. People go to Oxford to get station and money—and they can only receive them from those who have them. The University is but a poor body, and has nothing of real consequence to bestow. The enormous wealth of which we hear so much, is in the gift of the colleges, and it is from their endowments, and the places in their gift, that the successful class-man looks and must look for his pecuniary reward. A very distinguished observer has given his opinion on this point. “I think,” says Professor Vaughan—
“. . . that the fellowships should be opened practically to merit in all branches of learning which the University system now recognises. At present they are practically devoted to the literæ humaniores; the examination at most colleges is traditional, and the only merit recognised in the award of fellowships is classical knowledge and taste, and the power of dealing with moral and historical questions—departments of prime importance and great value, but no longer deserving exclusive ascendancy. When a mathematical tutor is wanted in the college, an exception is commonly made in the principle of election; but as a general rule, even mathematical attainments are disregarded in the choice of fellows, and the consequence has been that in spite of distinctions, classes, and scholarships, the study of mathematics still languishes. The number of candidates for honours does not increase; the reason is not doubtful—mathematics in Oxford are a bad investment for intellectual, physical, and pecuniary capital. The fellowships are the first substantial return for all the money and toil and self-denial involved in an intellectual education. The prospect of a fellowship closes the vista, it leads the eye, and directs the energies as well as animates them. On this account, notwithstanding all the honorary and titular encouragements given to mathematics, they are practically discouraged. This consideration is one of vast importance in its bearing on the recent extension of University studies. If it be seriously desired and intended to give vitality to new studies, we must operate upon the fellowships for this purpose. If the course of things is left to itself, the traditional system of election will probably prevail in the colleges. The examinations will embrace the old topics; the new either will not be admitted, or, if introduced, will but lightly or occasionally affect the election. Thus under a system nominally comprehensive we may find our actual course as narrow as ever in its range, and perhaps even less energetic than before. For if the fellowships be opened to merit, and this merit consist in the classical proficiency of persons destined to holy orders alone, the standard of excellence will fall, even in classical subjects, lower than at present. Let us suppose thirty fellowships vacant every year in the University: under this system every second-class man in classics might be sanguine of obtaining one. In lieu of the few fellowships now open to competition and stimulating to great exertions, the numbers will be largely multiplied, and the pressure of motive to exertion be proportionately lowered. I do not mean to state that an encouragement to mediocrity has not its advantages: it is better to be in the middle than at the bottom, to be indifferently good than bad. But I think that those who seriously consult the improvements of our institutions cannot be content with such: I would propose, therefore, that a certain numberof fellowships in each college should be specifically devoted to certain branches of learning. This arrangement, I believe, and this alone, will secure the cultivation of all valuable knowledge—classical, historical, theological, philosophical, mathematical, and physical.”
Nor can it be said that the endowments of the colleges are insufficient for the purpose—since a very accurate authority has described them as follows:—
“There are in Oxford 542 fellowships. This does not include the demyships at Magdalen, but it does include all the fellowships at St. John’s and New College, and all the studentships at Christ’s Church, which differ from fellowships elsewhere in being tenable, and to some extent actually held, by undergraduates.
“From this body of men has to be supplied all the studying and all the educating power of the University—all the professors, all the tutors, all those who pursue learning for its own sake and beyond the needs of practical life.
“Out of this number only 22 are in such a sense open, that a young man, on first coming up, sees his way clear towards them, with no other bar than may arise from his own want of talents or diligence.”
It is evident, therefore, how nugatory the late statute will be; also where we are to look for reform.
In another point too the colleges require innovation. They have a monopoly, and, like all Protected classes, they have a little slumbered on their work. Every student by the Laudian Code must be a member of some Hall or College. No college can admit more than the number, whether large or small, that its own buildings can accommodate, and by very natural, if not very commendable, arrangements, every student is a good deal confined to his own college for education and instruction.
The Commissioners substantially purpose that all these restrictions should be broken down; they would allow persons to keep terms at the University, without being members of any collegiate establishment, which was also most certainly the ancient system, as the present restriction dates only from the time of Queen Elizabeth and the Chancellorship of the erudite Lord Leicester, and they would also allow every college to admit students to its other advantages, without necessarily requiring their residence within the walls. The benefit of the latter plan, which is that pursued at Cambridge, is that the best colleges gain thereby the power of unlimited competition, and the inferior, if they would not see themselves altogether destitute of undergraduate residents, must, in some measure, emulate the well-doing of their superiors, and cannot rely on a certain annual dividend of students, who, better places being full, must go to them, or forego the University entirely. In both respects, it seems to us that the Commissioners are practically right. We should, as our readers will have gathered, regret to see any general abandonment of the collegiate system; for we regard it as the sole mainspring of the best education. But exactly because we believe it to be the best, we are willing to let others be tried. We have no fear that the extra-collegiate residence or instruction can ever be more than a healthy and gentle stimulus from without. It may quicken the lazy consciences of certain Fellows, but it cannot change the habits of our people.
The Commissioners also propose the revival of the Professorial element—which would indeed be necessarily needed if any considerable number of “unattached” students were to congregate at Oxford, but not to enter at any college; for the Professors, as we need not remind our readers, are the teachers provided by the University, and are the persons to whom the Laudian Code almost exclusively looks for Academical instruction. The great reason for doing this is not exactly connected with the detail of education; since it is very dubious if under any management the University lectures could be made of more than a subordinate or subsidiary usefulness. In practice and upon trial they have yielded to the inroads of the more modern instructions of the College Tutor and the Private Tutor, and though with the growth of the new Studies a fair place may perhaps be found for them, still they are not and cannot be necessary or essential or primary. The argument for their revival is different. It is odd how few men of European reputation Oxford has turned out. It used to be argued, “What University, I pray, can produce an invincible Hales, an admirable Bacon, an excellent well-grounded Middleton, a subtile Scotus, an approved Burley, a resolute Baconthorpe, a singular Ockham, a solid and industrious Holcot, and a profound Bradwardine? all which persons,” continues the wondering author,1 “flourished within one century.” But now the mediæval luminaries are waxed dim, and admirers of Oxford are compelled to allow—
“The great want of Oxford hitherto has not been merely nor chiefly that the Professors have not been sufficiently active in teaching, but that the system has disfavoured the existence and missed the general effects of Professorial learning. Some powerful men we have had; a considerable body, or a constant succession of such, we have not had; men who could give authoritative opinions on matters connected with the sciences; whose words when spoken in public or private could kindle an enthusiasm on important branches of learning, or could chill the zeal for petty or factitious erudition; men whose names and presence in the University could command respect for the place, whether attracting students of all kinds and ages to it, or directing upon it the sight and interest and thought of the whole learned world; men whose investigations could perpetually be adding to knowledge, not as mere conduits to convey it, but as fountains to augment its scantiness, and freshen its sleeping waters. Of such men we desire more than we have had. The first care must be to encourage the existence and promote the creation of such.”
There is no saying, in matters of this sort, so false as the dictum of Mr. Carlyle, “the true University of this day is a collection of books”;—it is so if you wish to form a bookworm, but not else. Who doubts that the presence of a man like Arnold in any place is a dynamical power of the first intensity? Who does not see in the once omnipotent influence of Father Newman, a plain indication that if the Professoriate is silent, the pulpit of St. Mary’s is ready to misuse its functions?
The greatest change in theory and principle of all, is one that is not technically before us—we mean the admission of the Dissenters. On this the Commissioners were not asked to report, nor is it one on which their inquiring or our writing is likely to be of extreme avail. In fact, the onus probandi is on the other side; here are, we will say, perhaps a hundred English youths, as clever, as able, as intellectual, as likely to participate in the full benefits of University instructions, as any other youths. Why then should they be excluded?
It is commonly said, that “the auspices are not favourable”. The “Founders’ wills,” which are analogous to “the chickens” under the Roman Republic, it seems are adverse, at least so the dignified magistrates who alone can duly interpret such occult mysteries explicitly declare, but from which however we must only infer that those magistrates dislike what is proposed, for it has long been observed that in the explanation of testaments and auguries, nothing is ever forbidden which is agreeable to the prejudices and purposes of the presiding authority. But with implicit deference to the Heads of Houses, who alone of course can form a court of competent jurisdiction in matters so ominous, it seems anomalous on this ground to exclude Roman Catholics, who are of the religion of the Founder. It appears odd and wonderful that every benefactor—though, as the divining authorities state, laudably anxious for the exclusive benefit of his own kin,—should have always neglected to provide any preference for his own religion. It is more singular again, that he should have always expressed a strong preference for the religion of others. No doubt it is so, if the augurs say so; but it is not quite what we should expect.
Why do we draw the line at the Thirty-nine Articles? Why should young Gorham and Philpotts, junior, learn side by side, if children of one religion only can safely be taught together? Their parents don’t agree at all—on the contrary, each suggests that the other will sometime be in a difficulty. Surely, with the recent history of Oxford before our eyes, it is idle to fear an access of theological disputation. Of the year 1182, it was remarked, “Politeness being now vanished, and declamatory orations and such like exercises being laid aside, those students of the University who had no intentions to busy themselves, or make benefit by the laws, applied themselves to controversial divinity, and spent their chiefest time in unfolding the thorny questions thereof—so that neglecting also the vein of purity both in writing and speaking, their Latin became generally barbarous, and they themselves so conceited, as to esteem all things most eloquent that they spoke. Baleus seemeth to be a great enemy to this divinity and the Professors thereof, for after his wonted way of exclaiming against all things done in these times, which he took to be altogether superstitious, he gives us an uncouth and harsh opinion of it, thus: ‘Et stultior est hæc sententiarum Theologiæ ex hoc centaurorum biformi confleto genere, quam sunt scripta fabulosa Hesiodi et Orphei Theologorum Gentilium’. In another place he calleth it, ‘Theologiam ineptiorem quam erat antiqua illa Gentilium Sapientia poetica et fabulosa’:” really Baleus was a great man. We suggest that an admission of the Dissenters may improve the quality of the discussion.
In truth, there is no reason. The University of Oxford is a part of the nation; it has changed, is changing, and will change, with the nation. Notwithstanding that a verbal assent is exacted to the Thirty-nine Articles, what proportion of Oxford-bred men can give any rational account of them, or of the weary controversies out of which their very nomenclature arose. On a hundred points therein contained, the English nation has no opinion at all; since our fathers fell asleep there has been no bonâ fide discussion of them; we have grown to manhood, and must pick up our belief as we can. The English nation is divided; English Dissent is a congeries of sects; the English Church is a congeries of sects: a really national institution should attempt and endeavour to embrace, if so it might be, reconcile them all. Certainly, the present system encourages jesuitry and equivocation. “Science,” say the Tractarian divines, “tells us that the earth goes round the sun; Scripture that the sun goes round the earth: for our part, we believe both; both may be.” Excellent if you can—admirable if it be only possible; but is the State to be asked to give a monopoly to the teachers of such a theology?
We do not suppose, however, that the admission of the Dissenters would be practically any amazing change. Not an enormous number would go. It must be recollected that the theological division of the English people corresponds, though very roughly, with a social division. Nonconformists differ much from Conformists; their habits are different; their manners are different; their ethics are different. A Unitarian marries a wife, and turns banker; his son is made a lord, and turns to the Church; sic itur ad astra. So subtle and so strong are the influences of life and society, of rank and homage and luxury—so feeble the strength of loose opinion, that few families resist the former long; hereditary wealth, in a generation or two, very conscientiously retreats to the religion of the wealthy. All this was quite forgotten at the establishment of the London University. Lord Brougham is accustomed to describe the expectations of thronged halls, and eager students, and intense and ceaseless study; and the astonishment of the promoters at the moderate number, and calm demeanour and brief sojourn of those who responded to their call. Nor is the case altered now. The expanse of Gower Street will not emulate the slopes of St. Geneviêve, nor will De Morgan be followed like Abelard. The number of Nonconformists who desire to give their sons what can, in the English use of the term, be called a University education, is not very considerable, nor, according to the better authorities, does it increase. They do not design their sons in general for an intellectual life, for the learned professions, for business on a large scale or of a varied kind; they do not wish their sons to form aristocratic connections; but to be solicitors, attorneys, merchants, in a patient and useful way. For this they think—and most likely they think rightly—that twenty years of life are quite an adequate preparation; they believe that more would in most cases interfere with the practised sagacity, the moderate habits, the simple wants, the routine inclinations, which are essential to the humbler sorts of practical occupation. Open therefore the older Universities though you may, you will not practically increase or materially change the class who will resort to them; the Dissenters in Oxford will ever be but a small, a feeble, an immaterial, though certainly a respectable and perhaps an erudite minority. The English Catholics might be a more numerous, as we suspect they are in Oxford opinion a far more formidable, faction: a Catholic Hall, we can believe, would really be a nuisance in Oxford; yet even this, we imagine, should be boldly encountered. It would become much less fearful in a very few years. The English leanings and prejudices are so contrary to Romanism, that it is only the semblance of persecution and the fortuitous opportunities of recent years which have occasioned its recent prominence. Would not the Tractarian movement have come to a point sooner, have gained less strength, have effected less for the Roman Church, if the Oxford men had from early youth seen exactly what Catholicism was. Familiarity will spoil romance,—the charm of Romanism is its mystery. But anyhow, if what has been said be in the least true, if Oxford is, as we have hinted, to educate our thinkers—how absurd to train them in ignorance of what is—how peculiarly foolish to deny them the instruction of associating with people formed in other disciplines, and bred in other faiths, the only sure mode of comprehending those disciplines and estimating those faiths. How wretched to make them say exactly beforehand what they will believe—and that with an accuracy which hardly any cultivated man would like to apply even to his most elaborate or mature speculations. What wonder if this ends in the common doctrine that the articles are “forms of thought”—irremediable categories of the understanding—certain by nature,—as clear as if they were themselves revealed.
Of what would follow upon the admission of Dissenters—of the Halls or Colleges that should be established—of the rules proper for them—of the mode in which theology should be taught when there are known and tolerated differences of opinion to be taken account of—of these and other points it would be premature to speak now. What is wanted for the moment, is to take off the subscriptions to articles both at entrance and at the degree. This, without any other change, would secure the great step, the admission of the non-Anglican classes: we have proved that this is wanted for Oxford itself, and what we have said of a modern University shows, we imagine, that the Dissenters are not numerous enough to form a University by themselves—that London is not, as Lord Derby has oddly argued, an equivalent for Oxford.
What is our chance of getting these Reforms? From within, exactly none. The government of the University of Oxford is one of the worst features of its present condition. A little principle will make this clear. The best and most natural administrative and presiding government of a corporate body professing to promote the pursuits of education is, we suppose, an aristocracy of the persons educated there—a select body, in a great degree, at least, composed of those who have had a practical experience of the benefits and evils of that institution itself, and who have shown during the period of their education—or otherwise in after-life—that they were competent to appreciate the one and counteract the other. In a college, we conjecture, of necessity, the power (division of pecuniary dividends perhaps excepted) must be mainly in the hands of persons engaged in education at the time, or recently before, within its walls. Few others will know the requisite detail, nor do the affairs of such an institution in general possess very great interest for any others. With a University it is otherwise. Teachers, in general, do not settle too well what is to be taught: the manner of teaching under a little healthy competition they will be pretty sure soon to know; but why it is good to know anything—what are the advantages of each subject—which is best for what persons—on such questions they are little likely to be better informed than others, and on them their conversation has commonly, in our experience, a rather opaque texture, and a somewhat torpid effect. And if the University be prosperous and useful, it is likely that a considerable number will be found among its more distinguished students interested in its good fortune, and able and willing to take a share in its government and direction. Such a body exactly is, according to the theory of it, the Hebdomadal Board, or weekly meeting of the Heads of Houses—that is, of Halls and Colleges in Oxford. It might seem likely that the Head of a College would be one of the best men in the University, one of the persons most distinguished, locally, and in the world. The duties of the office are light, they do not entail daily residence, and the emoluments are very considerable. They fill a fair station in the eyes of mankind, and have every opportunity to acquire much acquaintance with the external world. It might seem that this was just such a body as we have imagined and described. The whole is spoiled by a vicious system of choice. The Heads of Colleges are elected by the Fellows; and the Fellowships—we have seen—are, as it is termed, close—that is, not open to general competition, or given to merit. We have quoted already, from Mr. Temple’s evidence, the rather startling assertion—which the Commissioners quote as accurate—that out of 542 Fellowships not more than 22 are really accessible to all the best men that may be at Oxford, whenever they chance to be vacant;—the rest are given to the Founders’ relations—to people bred at the school where he was born—to people that were born within two miles and a half of the place where he is buried—not more than six precisely from that at which he beneficially died. And the remainder, as well as these in default of claimants, are given by favour. The candidate is some relation to somebody else—is gentlemanly—is praised by persons unknown—has connections with patronage in the Church—and he is elected. Sometimes there is an examination previous to election, but there is always a mischievous doctrine that the knowledge there shown is not to be the sole test for that purpose of merit; but that the Examiners may allow for what they otherwise know to a man’s advantage—which is interpreted by a legend of a distinguished dignitary’s observing to a friend of his that was a candidate—“I ain’t going to read the papers—I shall vote for you, old fellow”. And as the Fellows are elected, so in general do they elect. “They,” says Mr. Senior, speaking of the Heads of Houses—
“. . . are generally taken from those who are or have been fellows of the college. When taken from those who have been fellows, the incumbent of a valuable college living is frequently chosen, as two persons unite their influence for that purpose, the incumbent and the person who according to the habits of the college is entitled to succeed him. When an actual fellow is chosen, it is frequently a man who has passed an idle Oxford life, and become familiar therefore with all the fellows, or has been an active useful bursar, and is supposed likely therefore to manage well the college revenues, or is recommended by sympathising in the doctrinal or political opinions of the majority, or simply by an easy temper. I am inclined to think that the peculiar qualities which fit a man to preside over a place of education have seldom much influence; the selection is made from a very narrow circle, and even in that very circle the best, or even the second best, man is seldom chosen.”
Mr. Senior would vest the appointment of the Heads of Houses in the Crown. Professor Vaughan, whose evidence has been before quoted, propounds a different scheme. “The Heads of Houses,” he observes—
“. . . do not necessarily, or even very generally, follow literary and scientific pursuits. Nor are they directly and closely connected with the instruction of the place. They simply appoint the tutors, and preside with more or less activity at the terminal examinations in College. They live generally with their families, and do not immediately imbibe the spirit or learn the wishes of those who more directly carry forward the instruction. They constitute a most valuable element for legislation as well as administration; but I think that it would be advantageous, if in addition to this, other influences were admitted to give their aid in suggesting and framing the laws of the University. It would be well, I think, at least to comprehend a learned element, such as in many European Universities has the chief if not the only sway. It would be desirable that in the seat of learning and instruction, those who have attained the highest position as cultivators of literature and science, who must be considered as intimately acquainted with the state of the several departments of knowledge, who are brought into occasional contact with students of all ages and degrees in the place, who have proved themselves to possess a considerable degree of intellectual power, and who are necessarily interested in the success and reputation of the University, should take some active part in making and administering the laws. I allude of course to the Professors as a body, who at present are scarcely recognised to be a part of the University system. That a University, in the higher sense of the term, should exist without such a class seems almost impossible; and it would be wasteful to possess it, or call it into existence, without assigning to it an important place in legislation and management. I do not suppose that there could occur any signal difficulty in the attempt to form a legislative and administrative Board out of the body of Heads of Houses and Professors. But I venture to suggest a scheme which would fulfil the conditions I have pointed out, and at the same time it would comprehend a third element tending to give the legislative Board somewhat of a popular and representative character, and thereby aiding its efficiency. For in order to convey information as to the state of the students, their moral condition, discipline, and attainments—in order to bring the public opinion of the place to bear more completely on the legislation—and to harmonise the legislation with the actual working of the system—it might be well to include in the legislative body a certain number of representatives of the present Masters.”
The Commissioners think the present scheme would work well, in time, if only the fellowships were thrown open. Anyhow, and one way or other, we hope to see the presiding board composed of the best men that Oxford can train.
Even when that is obtained something will be left. It is not to be expected that a large and highly educated body of persons, like the graduates of Oxford, will remain contented without some real share in the government and direction of a University—to which, in general, they are very strongly attached—nor is it to be wished. A small board of a dozen people, however well formed, even if composed of the twelve wisest men now living on earth, would be liable to considerable errors. It will be exposed to pique, and prejudice, and mistake. It will now and then be indolent. It will be exposed to domination from a restless and resident man. Being a bureaucracy, it will have the defects of a bureaucracy. It will always require criticism, and will often work the better for occasional censure.
At present there is in theory ample scope for popular action. The Convocation of Master of Arts at Oxford is in theory supreme; not a single bye-law, not a single change in the curriculum, not a single honorary degree, can be enacted, effected, or conferred without its authority. It has ample powers of debate; no Charter from the Crown can be accepted or surrendered without its assent. Savigny notices the popular Constitution of the Universities of England as one of their peculiarities, and it might really seem as if he spoke truly. But in fact, if we except an unlimited power of mere rejection, the Oxford Convocation has no power at all. Its right of debate and discussion are reduced to narrow limits, by the rule that all members must speak in Latin; their power of legislation is abolished by an exclusive right of initiating measures that has for a very long time been vested in the Heads of Houses. The effect is, that the Convocation has merely the right of rejecting or accepting without amendments, or alterations, or modifications, the whole of what is proposed to them by the Hebdomadal Board. It appears to us that these restrictions are on principle erroneous, and that it is advisable that they should be immediately and entirely removed.
We have not here the good fortune to find our opinion confirmed by the authority of the Commissioners. The fact is, that the Convocation at Oxford is an eminently Conservative body; perhaps more so than any other body now in the realm; its members are exceedingly out of the way of new ideas; they never understood Latin by the ear, and it is forbidden to address them in any other language; they don’t know what is wanted and they can’t be told it: they are interred in parsonages, and dream over their youth; what wonder if they wish the University to be as it was in their time; and if they are altogether opposed to changes, the bent and bearing of which they cannot comprehend. They see that Modern History is of no use among the poor, and very commendably object to its being taught. It is clearly preposterous to give a miscellaneous and casual body of this sort, the final decision on the details of a curriculum. Its members are certainly not competent to exercise varied, or questionable, or complicated powers, but what powers they have they should really and truly exercise. The right of debate and petition (petition we mean addressed to the Hebdomadal Board) on matters connected with Universities, could scarcely in an assembly of English gentlemen lead to any very atrocious results. Several gentlemen argue in the evidence, and it is evident their representations carry great weight with the Commissioners, that there is an extreme danger in erecting “a vast debating society in which, as occasion offered, every question might from time to time be discussed”. And certainly if it were proposed or designed to establish a society in Oxford for discussing theological or political questions in general, the objection might well be called unanswerable;—continual discussion on miscellaneous but exciting subjects would obviously interfere with the calm torpidity which does and should characterise the place. But if the discussion were by the law and constitution of the University rigidly and exclusively confined to matters affecting the welfare and interests of the University itself, the evil could not be of immense magnitude. Suppose there were—as very likely there would be just now—a striking debate once in two years, and almost mere silence between, surely that would hardly annihilate Oxford. Big buildings and broad acres can outlive much eloquence.
In place of abolishing the restrictions on the freedom of the old Convocation—which they propose to leave pretty much as they found it—the Commissioners propose to revive an old body called the House of Congregation, to be practically composed of the working tutors and teachers of Oxford, who are on this scheme to exercise the controlling, suggesting, and criticising function with respect to the higher authorities which it is generally felt some popular body ought to exercise. This is in fact a scheme to get a Convocation without what are sometimes called the “country masters”. We will not say that we dissent from a recommendation which we do not feel very able duly to appreciate, but we doubt. We have a great suspicion of complicity in Constitution-making; two bodies, we should have imagined, were ample for duties so simple and problems so little perplexing as those which are likely to come before the consideration of academical authorities. The British constitution does very well for Great Britain and Ireland, and all the colonies, but it would be ridiculous for three acres of land. We would rather see a popular Convocation with limited but efficient powers controlling and criticising and beseeching a select and admirable Hebdomadal Board.
From without, our chance of a reform in Oxford is much greater. The Heads of Houses do not know where they stand. Oxford is unpopular. Innovation may not come this year or next, but give destiny time, and it will be. It is useless to count up the number of her scholars—to demonstrate that, since the middle ages, her teachers have never been so many, or so diligent, or so useful. Mere labour will not save her. Year by year, hour by hour, as it were by a magical or secret influence, authority and dominion are leaving the classes that reverence her, and pass to those who know her not. What do the people in Wigan care for the Dons in Oxford? The authority which the cultivated and hereditary gentry of England have exercised for ages, is now to be transferred to classes not more instructed, not more wise, not more learned, not more refined—inferior in gentleness, in grace, in judgment, but superior in overbearing labour, in coarse energy, in the faculty of work. It will be well, if the wisest designs, the best opinions, the most beneficent institutions, the most time-honoured and efficient establishments, prevail against that ardent ignorance, that unknowing energy, that sharp and overweening decision. It will be much if pure argument, if deliberate eloquence, if wise reasoning, avail with men whose notions are so narrow, whose fancy is so weak, whose indolence is so finite. To them we doubt if Reason will justify her children—we are certain she will do no more. If we are to defend the nonsense of antiquity as well as its sense, we shall speedily cease to defend either. Will Financial Reformers neglect the sinecures of All Souls? Will scoffers at the House of Lords crouch before the Hebdomadal Board? Will believers in Mesmerism be tender to Magdalene or Merton?
Lastly, Oxford has vexed the English people—she has crossed their one speculative Affection; she has encountered their one speculative Hatred. So often as a Tractarian clergyman enters a village, and immediately there is a question of candlesticks and crosses and rood-lofts and piscinæ—immediately people mutter, “why that is Oxford”. More than that. A hundred educated men (as Romanists boast) with her honours to their names, and her token on their faces, and her teaching on their minds, have deserted to the enemy of England. This can not be answered. These people are ever busy; their names are daily in the papers; they visit out of the way places; they are gazed at in the quietest towns;—and wherever one of the grave figures passes with a dark dress, and a pale face and an Oxonian caution, he leaves an impression. The system which trained him must be bad. Such is our axiom;—tell an Englishman that a building is without use, and he will stare; that it is illiberal, and he will survey it; that it teaches Aristotle, and he will seem perplexed; that it don’t teach science, and he won’t mind; but only hint that it is the Pope, and he will arise and burn it to the ground. Some one has said this concerning Oxford; so let her be wise. Without are fightings, within are fears.
Hartley Coleridge was not like the Duke of Wellington.2 Children are urged by the example of the great statesman and warrior just departed—not indeed to neglect “their book” as he did—but to be industrious and thrifty; to “always perform business,” to “beware of procrastination,” to “never fail to do their best”: good ideas, as may be ascertained by referring to the masterly despatches on the Mahratta transactions—“great events,” as the preacher continues, “which exemplify the efficacy of diligence even in regions where the very advent of our religion is as yet but partially made known”. But
And it were almost a worse wilderness if there were not some, to relieve the dull monotony of activity, who are children through life; who act on wayward impulse, and whose will has never come; who toil not and who spin not; who always have “fair Eden’s simpleness”: and of such was Hartley Coleridge. “Don’t you remember,” writes Gray to Horace Walpole, “when Lord B. and Sir H. C. and Viscount D., who are now great statesmen, were little dirty boys playing at cricket? For my part I do not feel one bit older or wiser now than I did then.” For as some apply their minds to what is next them, and labour ever, and attain to governing the Tower, and entering the Trinity House,—to commanding armies, and applauding pilots,—so there are also some who are ever anxious to-day about what ought only to be considered to-morrow; who never get on; whom the earth neglects, and whom tradesmen little esteem; who are where they were; who cause grief, and are loved; that are at once a by-word and a blessing; who do not live in life, and it seems will not die in death: and of such was Hartley Coleridge.
A curious instance of poetic anticipation was in this instance vouchsafed to Wordsworth. When Hartley was six years old, he addressed to him these verses, perhaps the best ever written on a real and visible child:—
And so it was. As often happens, being very little of a boy in actual childhood, Hartley preserved into manhood and age all of boyhood which he had ever possessed—its beaming imagination and its wayward will. He had none of the natural roughness of that age. He never played—partly from weakness, for he was very small, but more from awkwardness. His uncle Southey used to say he had two left hands, and might have added that they were both useless. He could no more have achieved football, or mastered cricket, or kept in with the hounds, than he could have followed Charles’s Wain or played pitch and toss with Jupiter’s satellites. Nor was he very excellent at schoolwork. He showed, indeed, no deficiency. The Coleridge family have inherited from the old scholar of Ottery St. Mary a certain classical facility which could not desert the son of Samuel Taylor. But his real strength was in his own mind. All children have a world of their own, as distinct from that of the grown people who gravitate around them as the dreams of girlhood from our prosaic life; as the ideas of the kitten that plays with the falling leaves, from those of her carnivorous mother that catches mice and is sedulous in her domestic duties. But generally about this interior existence children are dumb. You have warlike ideas, but you cannot say to a sinewy relative, “My dear aunt, I wonder when the big bush in the garden will begin to walk about; I’m sure it’s a crusader, and I was cutting it all the day with my steel sword. But what do you think, aunt, for I’m puzzled about its legs, because you see, aunt, it has only one stalk; and besides, aunt, the leaves.” You cannot remark this in secular life; but you hack at the infelicitous bush till you do not altogether reject the idea that your small garden is Palestine, and yourself the most adventurous of knights. Hartley had this, of course, like any other dreamy child, but in his case it was accompanied with the faculty of speech, and an extraordinary facility in continuous story-telling. In the very earliest childhood he had conceived a complete outline of a country like England, whereof he was king himself, and in which there were many wars, and rumours of wars, and foreign relations and statesmen, and rebels and soldiers. “My people, Derwent,” he used to begin, “are giving me much pain; they want to go to war.” This faculty, as was natural, showed itself before he went to school, but he carried on the habit of fanciful narration even into that bleak and ungenial region. “It was not,” says his brother, “by a series of tales, but by one continuous tale, regularly evolved, and possessing a real unity, that he enchained the attention of his auditors, night after night, as we lay in bed, for a space of years, and not unfrequently for hours together.” . . . “There was certainly,” he adds, “a great variety of persons sharply characterised, who appeared on the stage in combination and not in succession.” Connected, in Hartley, with this premature development of the imagination, there was a singular deficiency in what may be called the sense of reality. It is alleged that he hardly knew that Ejuxrea, which is the name of his kingdom, was not as solid a terra firma as Keswick or Ambleside. The deficiency showed itself on other topics. His father used to tell a story of his metaphysical questioning. When he was about five years old, he was asked, doubtless by the paternal metaphysician, some question as to why he was called Hartley. “Which Hartley?” replied the boy. “Why, is there more than one Hartley?” “Yes, there is a deal of Hartleys; there is Picture Hartley (Hazlitt had painted a picture of him), and Shadow Hartley, and there’s Echo Hartley, and there’s Catchmefast Hartley,” seizing his own arm very eagerly, and as if reflecting on the “summject and ommject,” which is to say, being in hopeless confusion. We do not hear whether he was puzzled and perplexed by such difficulties in later life; and the essays which we are reviewing, though they contain much keen remark on the detail of human character, are destitute of the Germanic profundities; they do not discuss how existence is possible, nor enumerate the pure particulars of the soul itself. But considering the idle dreaminess of his youth and manhood, we doubt if Hartley ever got over his preliminary doubts—ever properly grasped the idea of fact and reality. This is not nonsense. If you attend acutely, you may observe that in few things do people differ more than in their perfect and imperfect realisation of this earth. To the Duke of Wellington a coat was a coat; “there was no mistake”; no reason to disbelieve it; and he carried to his grave a perfect and indubitable persuasion that he really did (what was his best exploit), without fluctuation, shave on the morning of the battle of Waterloo. You could not have made him doubt it. But to many people who will never be Field-Marshals, there is on such points, not rational doubt, but instinctive questioning. “Who the devil,” said Lord Byron, “could make such a world? No one, I believe.” “Cast your thoughts,” says a very different writer,1 “back on the time when our ancient buildings were first reared. Consider the churches all around us; how many generations have passed since stone was put upon stone, till the whole edifice was finished! The first movers and instruments of its erection, the minds that planned it, and the limbs that wrought at it, the pious hands that contributed to it, and the holy lips that consecrated it, have long, long ago been taken away, yet we benefit by their good deed. Does it not seem strange that men should be able, not merely by acting on others, not by a continued influence carried on through many minds in succession, but by a single direct act, to come into contact with us, and, as if with their own hand, to benefit us who live centuries later?” Or again, speaking of the lower animals: “Can anything be more marvellous or startling, than that we should have a race of beings about us, whom we do but see, and as little know their state, or can describe their interests or their destiny, as we can tell of the inhabitants of the sun and moon? It is indeed a very overpowering thought, that we hold intercourse with creatures who are as much strangers to us, as mysterious as if they were the fabulous, unearthly beings, more powerful than man, and yet his slaves, which Eastern superstitions have invented. . . . Cast your thoughts abroad on the whole number of them, large and small, in vast forests, or in the water, or in the air, and then say whether the presence of such countless multitudes, so various in their natures, so strange and wild in their shapes, is not” as incredible as anything can be. We go into a street, and see it thronged with men, and we say, Is it true, are there these men? We look on a creeping river, till we say, Is there this river? We enter the law courts: we watch the patient Chancellor: we hear the droning wigs:—surely this is not real,—this is a dream,—nobody would do that,—it is a delusion. We are really, as the sceptics insinuate, but “sensations and impressions,” in groups or alone, that float up and down; or, as the poet teaches, phantoms and images, whose idle stir but mocks the calm reality of the “pictures on the wall”. All this will be called dreamy; but it is exactly because it is dreamy that we notice it. Hartley Coleridge was a dreamer: he began with Ejuxrea, and throughout his years, he but slumbered and slept. Life was to him a floating haze, a disputable mirage: you must not treat him like a believer in stocks and stones—you might as well say he was a man of business.
Hartley’s school education is not worth recounting; but beside and along with it there was another education, on every side of him, singularly calculated to bring out the peculiar aptitudes of an imaginative mind, yet exactly, on that very account, very little likely to bring it down to fact and reality, to mix it with miry clay, or define its dreams by a daily reference to the common and necessary earth. He was bred up in the house of Mr. Southey, where, more than anywhere else in all England, it was held that literature and poetry are the aim and object of every true man, and that grocery and other affairs lie beneath at a wholly immeasurable distance, to be attended to by the inferior animals. In Hartley’s case the seed fell on fitting soil. In youth, and even in childhood, he was a not unintelligent listener to the unspeakable talks of the Lake poets.
“It was so,” writes his brother, “rather than by a regular course of study, that he was educated; by desultory reading, by the living voice of Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth, Lloyd, Wilson, and De Quincey; and again, by homely familiarity with townsfolk and countryfolk of every degree; lastly, by daily recurring hours of solitude—by lonely wanderings with the murmur of the Brathay in his ear.”
Thus he lived till the time came that he should go to Oxford, and naturally enough, it seems, he went up with much hope and strong excitement; for, quiet and calm as seem those ancient dormitories, to him, as to many, the going among them seemed the first entrance into the real world—the end of torpidity—the beginning of life. He had often stood by the white Rydal Water, and thought it was coming, and now it was come in fact. At first his Oxford life was prosperous enough. An old gentleman,1 who believes that he too was once an undergraduate, well remembers how Hartley’s eloquence was admired at wine parties and breakfast parties. “Leaning his head on one shoulder, turning up his dark bright eyes, and swinging backwards and forwards in his chair, he would hold forth by the hour, for no one wished to interrupt him, on whatever subject might have been started—either of literature, politics, or religion—with an originality of thought, a force of illustration,” which the narrator doubts “if any man then living, except his father, could have surpassed.” The singular gift of continuous conversation—for singular it is, if in any degree agreeable—seems to have come to him by nature, and it was through life the one quality which he relied on for attraction in society. Its being agreeable is to be accounted for mainly by its singularity; if one knew any respectable number of declaimers—if any proportion of one’s acquaintance should receive the gift of the English language, and “improve each shining hour” with liquid eloquence, how we should regret their present dumb and torpid condition! If we are to be dull—which our readers will admit to be an appointment of providence—surely we will be dull in silence. Do not sermons exist, and are they not a warning to mankind?
In fact, the habit of common and continuous speech is a symptom of mental deficiency. It proceeds from not knowing what is going on in other people’s minds. S. T. Coleridge, it is well known, talked to everybody, and to everybody alike; like a Christian divine, he did not regard persons. “That is a fine opera, Mr. Coleridge,” said a young lady, some fifty years back. “Yes, ma’am; and I remember Kant somewhere makes a very similar remark, for, as we know, the idea of philosophical infinity—” Now, this sort of talk will answer with two sorts of people—with comfortable, stolid, solid people, who don’t understand it at all—who don’t feel that they ought to understand it—who feel that they ought not—that they are to sell treacle and appreciate figs—but that there is this transcendental superlunary sphere, which is known to others—which is now revealed in the spiritual speaker, the unmitigated oracle, the evidently celestial sound. That the dreamy orator himself has no more notion what is passing in their minds than they have what is running through his, is of no consequence at all. If he did know it, he would be silent; he would be jarred to feel how utterly he was misunderstood; it would break the flow of his everlasting words. Much better that he should run on in a never-pausing stream, and that the wondering rustics should admire for ever. The basis of the entertainment is that neither should comprehend the other.—But in a degree yet higher is the society of an omniscient orator agreeable to a second sort of people,—generally young men, and particularly—as in Hartley’s case—clever undergraduates. All young men like what is theatrical, and by a fine dispensation all clever young men like notions. They want to hear about opinions, to know about opinions. The ever-flowing rhetorician gratifies both propensions. He is a notional spectacle. Like the sophist of old, he is something and says something. The vagabond speculator in all ages will take hold on those who wish to reason, and want premises—who wish to argue, and want theses—who desire demonstrations, and have but presumptions. And so it was acceptable enough that Hartley should make the low tones of his musical voice glide sweetly and spontaneously through the cloisters of Merton, debating the old questions, the “fate, free-will, foreknowledge,”—the points that Ockham and Scotus propounded in these same enclosures—the common riddles, the everlasting enigmas of mankind. It attracts the scorn of middle-aged men (who depart πρὸς τὰ ἱερά, and fancy they are wise), but it is a pleasant thing, that impact of hot thought upon hot thought, of young thought upon young thought, of new thought upon new thought. It comes to the fortunate once, but to no one a second time thereafter for ever.
Nor was Hartley undistinguished in the regular studies of the University. A regular, exact, accurate scholar he never was; but even in his early youth he perhaps knew much more and understood much more of ancient literature than seven score of schoolmasters and classmen. He had, probably, in his mind a picture of the ancient world, or of some of it, while the dry literati only know the combinations and permutations of the Greek alphabet. There is a pleasant picture of him at this epoch, recorded by an eye-witness. “My attention,” he narrates, “was at first aroused by seeing from a window a figure flitting about amongst the trees and shrubs of the garden with quick and agitated motion. This was Hartley, who, in the ardour of preparing for his college examination, did not even take his meals with the family, but snatched a hasty morsel in his own apartment, and only sought the free air when the fading daylight prevented him from seeing his books. Having found who he was that so mysteriously flitted about the garden, I was determined to lose no time in making his acquaintance, and through the instrumentality of Mrs. Coleridge I paid Hartley a visit in what he called his den. This was a room afterwards converted by Mr. Southey”—as what chink was not?—“into a supplementary library, but then appropriated as a study to Hartley, and presenting a most picturesque and student-like disorder of scattered pamphlets and folios.” This is not a picture of the business-like reading man—one wonders what fraction of his time he did read—but it was probably the happiest period of his life. There was no coarse prosaic action there. Much musing, little studying,—fair scholarship, an atmosphere of the classics, curious fancies, much perusing of pamphlets, light thoughts on heavy folios—these make the meditative poet, but not the technical and patient-headed scholar; yet, after all, he was happy, and obtained a second class.
A more suitable exercise, as it would have seemed at first sight, was supplied by that curious portion of Oxford routine, the Annual Prize Poem. This, he himself tells us, was, in his academic years, the real and single object of his ambition. His reason is, for an autobiographical reason, decidedly simple. “A great poet,” he says, “I should not have imagined myself, for I knew well enough that the verses were no great things.” But he entertained at that period of life—he was twenty-one—a favourable opinion of young ladies; and he seems to have ascertained, possibly from actual trial, that verses were not in themselves a very emphatic attraction. Singular as it may sound, the ladies selected were not only insensible to what is, after all, a metaphysical line, the distinction between good poetry and bad, but were almost indifferent to poetry itself. Yet the experiment was not quite conclusive. Verses might fail in common life, and yet succeed in the Sheldonian theatre. It is plain that they would be read out; it occurred to him, as he naïvely relates, that if he should appear “as a prizeman,” “as an intelligible reciter of poetry,” he would be an object of “some curiosity to the fair promenaders in Christchurch Meadow”; that the young ladies “with whom he was on bowing and speaking terms might have felt a satisfaction in being known to know me, which they had never experienced before”. “I should,” he adds, “have deemed myself a prodigious lion, and it was a character I was weak enough to covet more than that of poet, scholar, or philosopher.”
In fact, he did not get the prize. The worthy East Indian who imagined that, in leaving a bequest for a prize to poetry, he should be as sure of possessing poetry for his money as of eggs, if he had chosen eggs, or butter, if he had chosen butter, did not estimate rightly the nature of poetry, or the nature of the human mind. The mechanical parts of rhythm and metre are all that a writer can be certain of producing, or that a purchaser can be sure of obtaining; and these an industrious person will find in any collection of the Newdegate poems, together with a fine assortment of similes and sentiments, respectively invented and enjoined by Shem and Japhet for and to the use of after generations. And there is a peculiar reason why a great poet (besides his being, as a man of genius, rather more likely than another, to find a difficulty in the preliminary technicalities of art) should not obtain an academical prize, to be given for excellent verses to people of about twenty-one. It is a bad season. “The imagination,” said a great poet of the very age, “of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy, but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted.”1 And particularly in a real poet, where the disturbing influences of passion and fancy are most likely to be in excess, will this unhealthy tinge be most likely to be excessive and conspicuous. Nothing in the style of “Endymion” would have a chance of a prize; there are no complete conceptions, no continuance of adequate words. What is worse, there are no defined thoughts, or aged illustrations. The characteristic of the whole is beauty and novelty, but it is beauty which is not formed, and novelty which is strange and wavering. Some of these defects are observable in the copy of verses on the “Horses of Lysippus,” which Hartley Coleridge contributed to the list of unsuccessful attempts. It does not contain so much originality as we might have expected; on such a topic we anticipated more nonsense; a little, we are glad to say, there is, and also that there is an utter want of those even raps which are the music of prize poems,—which were the right rhythm for Pope’s elaborate sense, but are quite unfit for dreamy classics or contemplative enthusiasm. If Hartley, like Pope, had been the son of a shopkeeper, he would not have received the paternal encouragement, but rather a reprimand,—“Boy, boy, these be bad rhymes”; and so, too, believed a grizzled and cold examiner.
A much worse failure was at hand. He had been elected to a Fellowship, in what was at that time the only open foundation in Oxford, Oriel College: an event which shows more exact scholarship in Hartley, or more toleration in the academical authorities for the grammatical delinquencies of a superior man, than we should have been inclined, a priori, to attribute to either of them. But it soon became clear that Hartley was not exactly suited to that place. Decorum is the essence, pomposity the advantage, of tutors. These Hartley had not. Beside the serious defects which we shall mention immediately, he was essentially an absent and musing, and therefore at times a highly indecorous man; and though not defective in certain kinds of vanity, there was no tinge in his manner of scholastic dignity. A schoolmaster should have an atmosphere of awe, and walk wonderingly, as if he was amazed at being himself. But an excessive sense of the ludicrous disabled Hartley altogether from the acquisition of this valuable habit; perhaps he never really attempted to obtain it. He accordingly never became popular as a tutor, nor was he ever described as “exercising an influence over young persons”. Moreover, however excellently suited Hartley’s eloquence might be to the society of undergraduates, it was out of place at the Fellows’ table. This is said to be a dull place. The excitement of early thought has passed away; the excitements of active manhood are unknown. A certain torpidity seems natural there. We find too that, probably for something to say, he was in those years rather fond of exaggerated denunciation of the powers that be. This is not the habit most grateful to the Heads of Houses. “Sir,” said a great authority, “do you deny that Lord Derby ought to be Prime Minister? you might as well say, that I ought not to be Warden of So and So.” These habits rendered poor Hartley no favourite with the leading people of his college, and no great prospective shrewdness was required to predict that he would fare but ill, if any sufficient occasion should be found for removing from the place a person so excitable and so little likely to be of use in inculcating “safe” opinions among the surrounding youth.
Unhappily, the visible morals of Hartley offered an easy occasion. It is not quite easy to gather from the narrative of his brother the exact nature or full extent of his moral delinquencies; but enough is shown to warrant, according to the rules, the unfavourable judgment of the collegiate authorities. He describes, probably truly, the commencement of his errors—“I verily believe that I should have gone crazy, silly, mad with vanity, had I obtained the prize for my ‘Horses of Lysippus’. It was the only occasion in my life wherein I was keenly disappointed, for it was the only one upon which I felt any confident hope. I had made myself very sure of it; and the intelligence that not I but Macdonald was the lucky man, absolutely stupefied me; yet I contrived for a time to lose all sense of my misfortunes in exultation for Burton’s success. . . . I sang, I danced, I whistled, I ran from room to room, announcing the great tidings, and trying to persuade myself that I cared nothing at all for my own case. But it would not do. It was bare sands with me the next day. It was not the mere loss of the prize, but the feeling or phantasy of an adverse destiny. . . . I foresaw that all my aims and hopes would prove frustrate and abortive; and from that time I date my downward declension, my impotence of will, and my melancholy recklessness. It was the first time I sought relief in wine, which, as usual in such cases, produced not so much intoxication as downright madness.” Cast in an uncongenial society, requiring to live in an atmosphere of respect and affection—and surrounded by gravity and distrust—misconstrued and half tempted to maintain the misconstruction; with the waywardness of childhood without the innocency of its impulses; with the passions of manhood without the repressive vigour of a man’s will,—he lived as a woman lives that is lost and forsaken, who sins ever and hates herself for sinning, but who sins, perhaps, more on that very account; because she requires some relief from the keenness of her own reproach; because, in her morbid fancy, the idea is ever before her; because her petty will is unable to cope with the daily craving and the horrid thought—that she may not lose her own identity—that she may not give in to the rigid, the distrustful, and the calm.
There is just this excuse for Hartley, whatever it may be worth, that the weakness was hereditary. We do not as yet know, it seems most likely that we shall never know, the precise character of his father. But with all the discrepancy concerning the details, enough for our purpose is certain of the outline. We know that he lived many and long years a prey to weaknesses and vice of this very description; and though it be false and mischievous to speak of hereditary vice, it is most true and wise to observe the mysterious fact of hereditary temptation. Doubtless it is strange that the nobler emotions and the inferior impulse, their peculiar direction or their proportionate strength, the power of a fixed idea—that the inner energy of the very will, which seems to issue from the inmost core of our complex nature, and to typify, if anything does, the pure essence of the immortal soul—that these and such as these should be transmitted by material descent, as though they were an accident of the body, the turn of an eye-brow or the feebleness of a joint,—if this were not obvious, it would be as amazing, perhaps more amazing, than any fact which we know; it looks not only like predestinated, but even heritable election. But, explicable or inexplicable—to be wondered at or not wondered at—the fact is clear; tendencies and temptations are transmitted even to the fourth generation both for good and for evil, both in those who serve God and in those who serve Him not. Indeed, the weakness before us seems essentially connected—perhaps we may say on a final examination essentially identical—with the dreaminess of mind, the inapprehensiveness of reality which we remarked upon before. Wordsworth used to say, that “at a particular stage of his mental progress he used to be frequently so wrapt into an unreal transcendental world of ideas, that the external world seemed no longer to exist in relation to him, and he had to convince himself of its existence by clasping a tree or something that happened to be near him”. But suppose a mind which did not feel acutely the sense of reality which others feel, in hard contact with the tangible universe; which was blind to the distinction between the palpable and the impalpable, or rather lived in the latter in preference to, and nearly to the exclusion of, the former. What is to fix such a mind, what is to strengthen it, to give it a fulcrum? To exert itself, the will, like the arm, requires to have an obvious and a definite resistance, to know where it is, why it is, whence it comes, and whither it goes. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of,” says Prospero. So, too, the difficulty of Shakespeare’s greatest dreamer, Hamlet, is that he cannot quite believe that his duty is to be done where it lies, and immediately. Partly from the natural effect of a vision of a spirit which is not, but more from native constitution and instinctive bent, he is for ever speculating on the reality of existence, the truth of the world. “How,” discusses Kant, “is Nature in general possible?” and so asked Hamlet too. With this feeling on his mind, persuasion is useless and argument in vain. Examples gross as earth exhort him, but they produce no effect; but he thinks and thinks the more.
Hartley himself well observes that on such a character the likelihood of action is inversely as the force of the motive and the time for deliberation. The stronger the reason, the more certain the scepticism. Can anything be so certain? Does not the excess of the evidence alleged make it clear that there is something behind, something on the other side? Search then diligently lest anything be overlooked. Reflection “puzzles the will,” Necessity “benumbs like a torpedo”: and so
Why should we say any more? We do but “chant snatches of old tunes”. But in estimating men like the Coleridges—the son even more than the father—we must take into account this peculiar difficulty—this dreamy unbelief—this daily scepticism—this haunting unreality—and imagine that some may not be quite responsible either for what they do, or for what they do not—because they are bewildered, and deluded, and perplexed, and want the faculty as much to comprehend their difficulty as to subdue it.
The Oxford life of Hartley is all his life. The failure of his prospects there, in his brother’s words, “deprived him of the residue of his years”. The biography afterwards goes to and fro—one attempt after another failing, some beginning in much hope, but even the sooner for that reason issuing in utter despair. His literary powers came early to full perfection. For some time after his expulsion from Oriel he was resident in London, and the poems written there are equal, perhaps are superior, to any which he afterwards produced. This sonnet may serve as a specimen:—
He soon, however, went down to the Lakes, and there, except during one or two short intervals, he lived and died. This exception was a residence at Leeds, during which he brought out, besides a volume containing his best poems, the book which stands at the head of our article—the Lives of Northern Worthies. We selected the book, we confess, with the view mainly of bringing a remarkable character before the notice of our readers—but in itself the work is an excellent one, and of a rare kind.
Books are for various purposes—tracts to teach, almanacs to sell, poetry to make pastry, but this is the rarest sort of book, a book to read. As Dr. Johnson said, “Sir, a good book is one you can hold in your hand, and take to the fire”. Now there are extremely few books which can, with any propriety, be so treated. When a great author, as Grote or Gibbon, has devoted a whole life of horrid industry to the composition of a large history, one feels one ought not to touch it with a mere hand—it is not respectful. The idea of slavery hovers over the Decline and Fall. Fancy a stiffly dressed gentleman, in a stiff chair, slowly writing that stiff compilation in a stiff hand: it is enough to stiffen you for life. Or is poetry readable? Of course it is rememberable; when you have it in the mind, it clings; if by heart, it haunts. Imagery comes from it; songs which Iull the ear, heroines that waste the time. But this Biographia is actually read; a man is glad to take it up, and slow to lay it down; it is a book which is truly valuable, for it is truly pleasing; and which a man who has once had it in his library would miss from his shelves, not only in the common way, by a physical vacuum, but by a mental deprivation. This strange quality it owes to a peculiarity of style. Many people give many theories of literary composition, and Dr. Blair, whom we will read, is sometimes said to have exhausted the subject; but, unless he has proved the contrary, we believe that the knack in style is to write like a human being. Some think they must be wise, some elaborate, some concise; Tacitus wrote like a pair of stays; some startle as Thomas Carlyle, or a comet, inscribing with his tail. But legibility is given to those who neglect these notions, and are willing to be themselves, to write their own thoughts in their own words, in the simplest words, in the words wherein they were thought; and such, and so great, was in this book the magnanimity of Hartley.
As has been said, from his youth onwards, Hartley’s outward life was a simple blank. Much writing, and much musing, some intercourse with Wordsworth, some talking to undergraduate readers or Lake ladies, great loneliness, and much intercourse with the farmers of Cumberland—these pleasures, simple enough, most of them, were his life. The extreme pleasure of the peasantry in his conversation, is particularly remarked. “Aye, but Mr. Coleridge talks fine,” observed one. “I would go through fire and water for Mr. C.,” interjected another. His father, with real wisdom, had provided (in part, at least) for his necessary wants in the following manner:—
“This is a codicil to my last will and testament.
“S. T. Coleridge.
“Most desirous to secure, as far as in me lies, for my dear son Hartley, the tranquillity essential to any continued and successful exertion of his literary talents, and which, from the like characters of our minds in this respect, I know to be especially requisite for his happiness, and persuaded that he will recognise in this provision that anxious affection by which it is dictated, I affix this codicil to my last will and testament. . . . And I hereby request them (the said trustees) to hold the sum accruing to Hartley Coleridge from the equal division of my total bequest between him, his brother Derwent, and his sister Sara, after his mother’s decease, to dispose of the interests or proceeds of the same portion to or for the use of my dear son Hartley Coleridge, at such time or times, in such manner, or under such conditions, as they, the trustees above named, know to be my wish, and shall deem conducive to the attainment of my object in adding the codicil, namely, the anxious wish to ensure for my son the continued means of a home, in which I comprise board, lodging, and raiment. Providing that nothing in this codicil shall be so interpreted as to interfere with my son H. C.’s freedom of choice respecting his place of residence, or with his power of disposing of his portion by will after his decease according as his own judgments and affections may decide.”
An excellent provision, which would not, however, by the English law, have disabled the “said Hartley” from depriving himself of “the continued means of a home” by alienating the principal of the bequest; since the jurisprudence of this country has no legal definition of “prodigality,” and does not consider any person incompetent to manage his pecuniary affairs unless he be quite and certainly insane. Yet there undoubtedly are persons, and poor Hartley was one of them, who though in general perfectly sane, and even with superior powers of thought or fancy, are as completely unable as the most helpless lunatic to manage any pecuniary transactions, and to whom it would be a great gain to have perpetual guardians and compulsory trustees. But such people are rare, and few principles are so English as the maxim de minimis non curat lex.
He lived in this way for thirty years, or nearly so, but there is nothing to tell of all that time. He died 6th January, 1849, and was buried in Grasmere churchyard—the quietest place in England, “by the yews,” as Arnold says, “that Wordsworth planted, the Rotha with its big silent pools passing by”. It was a shining January day when Hartley was borne to the grave. “Keep the ground for us,” said Mr. Wordsworth to the sexton; “we are old, and it cannot be long.”
We have described Hartley’s life at length for a peculiar reason. It is necessary to comprehend his character, to appreciate his works; and there is no way of delineating character but by a selection of characteristic sayings and actions. All poets, as is commonly observed, are delineated in their poems, but in very different modes. Each minute event in the melancholy life of Shelley is frequently alluded to in his writings. The tender and reverential character of Virgil is everywhere conspicuous in his pages. It is clear that Chaucer was shrewd. We seem to have talked with Shakespeare, though we have forgotten the facts of his life; but it is not by minute allusion, or a tacit influence, or a genial and delightful sympathy, that a writer like Hartley Coleridge leaves the impress of himself, but in a more direct manner, which it will take a few words to describe.
Poetry begins in Impersonality. Homer is a voice—a fine voice, a fine eye, and a brain that drew with light; and this is all we know. The natural subjects of the first art are the scenes and events in which the first men naturally take an interest. They don’t care—who does?—for a kind old man; but they want to hear of the exploits of their ancestors—of the heroes of their childhood—of them that their fathers saw—of the founders of their own land—of wars, and rumours of wars—of great victories boldly won—of heavy defeats firmly borne—of desperate disasters unsparingly retrieved. So in all countries—Siegfried, or Charlemagne, or Arthur—they are but attempts at an Achilles: the subject is the same—the κλέα ἀνδρω̑ν and the death that comes to all. But then the mist of battles passes away, and the sound of the daily conflict no longer hurtles in the air, and a generation arises skilled with the skill of peace, and refined with the refinement of civilisation, yet still remembering the old world, still appreciating the old life, still wondering at the old men, and ready to receive, at the hand of the poet, a new telling of the old tale—a new idealisation of the legendary tradition. This is the age of dramatic art, when men wonder at the big characters of old, as schoolboys at the words of Æschylus, and try to find in their own breasts the roots of those monstrous, but artistically developed impersonations. With civilisation too comes another change: men wish not only to tell what they have seen, but also to express what they are conscious of. Barbarians feel only hunger, and that is not lyrical; but as time runs on, arise gentler emotions and finer moods and more delicate desires which need expression, and require from the artist’s fancy the lightest touches and the most soothing and insinuating words. Lyrical poetry, too, as we know, is of various kinds. Some, as the war song, approach to the epic, depict events and stimulate to triumph; others are love songs to pour out wisdom, others sober to describe champagne; some passive and still, and expressive of the higher melancholy, as Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”. But with whatever differences of species and class, the essence of lyrical poetry remains in all identical; it is designed to express, and when successful does express, some one mood, some single sentiment, some isolated longing in human nature. It deals not with man as a whole, but with man piecemeal, with man in a scenic aspect, with man in a peculiar light. Hence lyrical poets must not be judged literally from their lyrics: they are discourses; they require to be reduced into the scale of ordinary life, to be stripped of the enraptured element, to be clogged with gravitating prose. Again, moreover, and in course of time, the advance of ages and the progress of civilisation appear to produce a new species of poetry which is distinct from the lyrical, though it grows out of it, and contrasted with the epic, though in a single respect it exactly resembles it. This kind may be called the self-delineative, for in it the poet deals not with a particular desire, sentiment, or inclination in his own mind, not with a special phase of his own character, not with his love of war, his love of ladies, his melancholy, but with his mind viewed as a whole, with the entire essence of his own character. The first requisite of this poetry is truth. It is, in Plato’s phrase, the soul “itself by itself” aspiring to view and take account of the particular notes and marks that distinguish it from all other souls. The sense of reality is necessary to excellence; the poet being himself, speaks like one who has authority; he knows and must not deceive. This species of poetry, of course, adjoins on the lyrical, out of which it historically arises. Such a poem as the “Elegy” is, as it were, on the borders of the two; for while it expresses but a single emotion, meditative, melancholy, you seem to feel that this sentiment is not only then and for a moment the uppermost, but (as with Gray it was) the habitual mood, the pervading emotion of his whole life. Moreover, in one especial peculiarity, this sort of poetry is analogous to the narrative or epic. No two things certainly can, in a general aspect, be more distantly removed one from another, the one dealing in external objects and stirring events, the other with the stillness and repose of the poet’s mind; but still in a single characteristic the two coincide. They describe character, as the painters say, in mass. The defect of the drama is, that it can delineate only motion. If a thoughtful person will compare the character of Achilles, as we find it in Homer, with the more surpassing creations of dramatic invention, say with Lear or Othello, he will perhaps feel that character in repose, character on the lonely beach, character in marble, character in itself, is more clearly and perfectly seen in the epic narrative, than in the conversational drama. It of course requires immense skill to make mere talk exhibit a man as he is ἑτάρων ἄτερ. Now this quality of epic poetry the self-delineative precisely shares with it. It describes a character—the poet’s—alone by itself. And therefore, when the great master in both kinds did not hesitate to turn aside from his “high argument” to say—
pedants may prose as they please about the “impropriety” of “interspersing” species of composition which are by nature remote; but Milton felt more profoundly that in its treatment of character the egotistical poetry is allied to the epic; that he was putting together elements which would harmoniously combine; that he was but exerting the same faculties in either case—being guided thereto by a sure instinct, the desire of genius to handle and combine every one of the subjects on which it is genius.
Now it is in this self-delineative species of poetry that, in our judgment, Hartley Coleridge has attained to nearly, if not quite, the highest excellence; it pervades his writings everywhere. But a few sonnets may be quoted to exemplify it:—
Indeed, the whole series of sonnets with which the earliest and best work of Hartley began is (with a casual episode on others) mainly and essentially a series on himself. Perhaps there is something in the structure of the sonnet rather adapted to this species of composition. It is too short for narrative, too artificial for the intense passions, too complex for the simple, too elaborate for the domestic; but in an impatient world where there is not a premium on self-describing, who so would speak of himself must be wise and brief, artful and composed—and in these respects he will be aided by the concise dignity of the tranquil sonnet.
It is remarkable that in this, too, Hartley Coleridge resembled his father. Turn over the early poems of S. T. Coleridge, the minor poems (we exclude “The Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel,” which are his epics), but the small shreds which Bristol worshipped and Cottle paid for, and you will be disheartened by utter dulness. Taken on a decent average, and perhaps excluding a verse here and there, it really seems to us that they are inferior to the daily works of the undeserving and multiplied poets. If any reader will peruse any six of the several works intituled Poems by a Young Gentleman, we believe he will find the refined anonymity less insipid than the small productions of Samuel Taylor. There will be less puff and less ostentation. The reputation of the latter was caused not by their merit but by their time. Fifty years ago people believed in metre, and it is plain that Coleridge (Southey may be added, for that matter) believed in it also; the people in Bristol said that these two were wonderful men, because they had written wonderfully small verses; and such is human vanity, that both for a time accepted the creed. In Coleridge, who had large speculative sense, the hallucination was not permanent—there are many traces that he rated his Juvenilia at their value; but poor Southey, who lived with domestic women, actually died in the delusion that his early works were perfect, except that he tried to “amend” the energy out of “Joan of Arc,” which was the only good thing in it. His wife did not doubt that he had produced stupendous works. Why, then, should he? But experience has now shown that a certain metrical facility, and a pleasure in the metrical expression of certain sentiments, are in youth extremely common. Many years ago, Mr. Moore is reported to have remarked to Sir Walter Scott, that hardly a magazine was then published which did not contain verses that would have made a sensation when they were young men. “Confound it, Tom,” was the reply, “what luck it was we were born before all these fellows.” And though neither Moore nor Scott are to be confounded with the nameless and industrious versifiers of the present day, yet it must be allowed that they owed to their time and their position—to the small quantity of rhyme in the market of the moment, and the extravagant appreciation of their early productions—much of that popular encouragement which induced them to labour upon more excellent compositions and to train themselves to write what they will be remembered by. But, dismissing these considerations, and returning to the minor poems of S. T. Coleridge, although we fearlessly assert that it is impossible for any sane man to set any value on—say the “Religious Musings”—an absurd attempt to versify an abstract theory, or the essay on the Pixies, who had more fun in them than the reader of it could suspect—it still is indisputable that scattered here and there through these poems, there are lines about himself (lines, as he said in later life, “in which the subjective object views itself subjectivo-objectively”) which rank high in that form of art. Of this kind are the “Tombless Epitaph,” for example, or the lines,—
and so on. In fact, it would appear that the tendency to, and the faculty for, self-delineation are very closely connected with the dreaminess of disposition and impotence of character which we spoke of just now. Persons very subject to these can grasp no external object, comprehend no external being; they can do no external thing, and therefore they are left to themselves. Their own character is the only one which they can view as a whole, or depict as a reality; of every other they may have glimpses, and acute glimpses, like the vivid truthfulness of particular dreams; but no settled appreciation, no connected development, no regular sequence whereby they may be exhibited on paper or conceived in the imagination. If other qualities are supposed to be identical, those will be most egotistical who only know themselves; the people who talk most of themselves will be those who talk best.
In the execution of minor verses, we think we could show that Hartley should have the praise of surpassing his father; but nevertheless it would be absurd, on a general view, to compare the two men. Samuel Taylor was so much bigger; what there was in his son was equally good, perhaps, but then there was not much of it; outwardly and inwardly he was essentially little. In poetry, for example, the father has produced two longish poems, which have worked themselves right down to the extreme depths of the popular memory, and stay there very firmly, in part from their strangeness, but in part from their power. Of Hartley, nothing of this kind is to be found—he could not write connectedly; he wanted steadiness of purpose, or efficiency of will, to write so voluntarily; and his genius did not, involuntarily, and out of its unseen workings, present him with continuous creations; on the contrary, his mind teemed with little fancies, and a new one came before the first had attained any enormous magnitude. As his brother observed, he wanted “back thought”. “On what plan, Mr. Coleridge, are you arranging your books?” inquired a lady. “Plan, madam? I have no plan: at first I had a principle; but then I had another, and now I do not know.” The same contrast between the “shaping mind” of the father, and the gentle and minute genius of the son, is said to have been very plain in their conversation. That of Samuel Taylor was continuous, diffused, comprehensive.
“Great talker, certainly,” said Hazlitt, “if you will let him start from no data, and come to no conclusion.” The talk of Hartley, on the contrary, though continuous in time, was detached in meaning; stating hints and observations on particular subjects; glancing lightly from side to side, but throwing no intense light on any, and exhausting none. It flowed gently over small doubts and pleasant difficulties, rippling for a minute sometimes into bombast, but lightly recovering and falling quietly in “melody back”.
By way, it is likely, of compensation to Hartley for this great deficiency in what his father imagined to be his own forte—the power of conceiving a whole—Hartley possessed, in a considerable degree, a species of sensibility to which the former was nearly a stranger. “The mind of S. T. Coleridge,” says one who had every means of knowing and observing, “was not in the least under the influence of external objects.” Except in the writings produced during daily and confidential intimacy with Wordsworth (an exception that may be obviously accounted for), no trace can perhaps be found of any new image or metaphor from natural scenery. There is some story too of his going for the first time to York, and by the Minster, and never looking up at it. But Hartley’s poems exhibit a great sensibility to a certain aspect of exterior nature, and great fanciful power of presenting that aspect in the most charming and attractive forms. It is likely that the London boyhood of the elder Coleridge was,—added to a strong abstractedness which was born with him,—a powerful cause in bringing about the curious mental fact, that a great poet, so susceptible to every other species of refining and delightful feeling, should have been utterly destitute of any perception of beauty in landscape or nature. We must not forget that S. T. Coleridge was a bluecoat boy,—what do any of them know about fields? And similarly, we require in Hartley’s case, before we can quite estimate his appreciation of nature, to consider his position, his circumstances, and especially his time.
Now it came to pass in those days that William Wordsworth went up into the hills. It has been attempted in recent years to establish that the object of his life was to teach Anglicanism. A whole life of him has been written by an official gentleman, with the apparent view of establishing that the great poet was a believer in rood-lofts, an idolater of piscinæ. But this is not capable of rational demonstration. Wordsworth, like Coleridge, began life as a heretic, and as the shrewd Pope unfallaciously said, “once a heretic, always a heretic”. Sound men are sound from the first; safe men are safe from the beginning, and Wordsworth began wrong. His real reason for going to live in the mountains was certainly in part sacred, but it was not in the least Tractarian:—
His whole soul was absorbed in the one idea, the one feeling, the one thought, of the sacredness of hills.
The defect of this religion is, that it is too abstract for the practical, and too bare for the musing. The worship of sensuous beauty—the southern religion—is of all sentiments the one most deficient in his writings. His poetry hardly even gives the charm, the entire charm, of the scenery in which he lived. The lighter parts are little noticed: the rugged parts protrude. The bare waste, the folding hill, the rough lake, Helvellyn with a brooding mist, Ulswater in a grey day: these are his subjects. He took a personal interest in the corners of the universe. There is a print of Rembrandt said to represent a piece of the Campagna, a mere waste, with a stump and a man, and under is written “Tacet et loquitur”; and thousands will pass the old print-shop where it hangs, and yet have a taste for paintings, and colours, and oils: but some fanciful students, some lonely stragglers, some long-haired enthusiasts, by chance will come, one by one, and look, and look, and be hardly able to take their eyes from the fascination, so massive is the shade, so still the conception, so firm the execution. Thus is it with Wordsworth and his poetry. Tacet et loquitur. Fashion apart, the million won’t read it. Why should they?—they could not understand it. Don’t put them out,—let them buy, and sell, and die;—but idle students, and enthusiastic wanderers, and solitary thinkers, will read, and read, and read, while their lives and their occupations hold. In truth, his works are the Scriptures of the intellectual life; for that same searching, and finding, and penetrating power which the real Scripture exercises on those engaged, as are the mass of men, in practical occupations and domestic ties, do his works exercise on the meditative, the solitary, and the young.
And he had more than others—
And therefore he has had a whole host of sacred imitators. Mr. Keble, for example, has translated him for women. He has himself told us that he owed to Wordsworth the tendency ad sanctiora which is the mark of his own writings; and in fact he has but adapted the tone and habit of reverence which his master applied to common objects and the course of the seasons, to sacred objects and the course of the ecclesiastical year,—diffusing a mist of sentiment and devotion altogether delicious to a gentle and timid devotee. Hartley Coleridge is another translator. He has applied to the sensuous beauties and seductive parts of external nature the same cultus which Wordsworth applied to the bare and the abstract. It is—
It is, as it were, female beauty in wood and water; it is Rydal Water on a shining day; it is the gloss of the world with the knowledge that it is gloss: the sense of beauty, as in some women, with the feeling that yet it is hardly theirs:—
And he knew it himself: he has sketched the essence of his works:—
We had more to say of Hartley: we were to show that his “Prometheus” was defective; that its style had no Greek severity, no defined outline; that he was a critic as well as a poet, though in a small detached way, and what is odd enough, that he could criticise in rhyme. We were to make plain how his heart was in the right place, how his love affairs were hopeless, how he was misled by his friends; but our time is done, and our space is full, and these topics must “go without day” of returning. We may end as we began. There are some that are bold and strong and incessant and energetic and hard, and to these is the world’s glory; and some are timid and meek and impotent and cowardly and rejected and obscure. “One man esteemeth one day above another, another esteemeth every day alike.” And so of Hartley, whom few regarded; he had a resource, the stillness of thought, the gentleness of musing, the peace of nature.
He is gone from among them.
The greatest of English poets, it is often said, is but a name. “No letter of his writing, no record of his conversation, no character of him drawn with any fulness by a contemporary,” have been extracted by antiquaries from the piles of rubbish which they have sifted. Yet of no person is there a clearer picture in the popular fancy. You seem to have known Shakespeare—to have seen Shakespeare—to have been friends with Shakespeare. We would attempt a slight delineation of the popular idea which has been formed, not from loose tradition or remote research, not from what some one says some one else said that the poet said, but from data which are at least undoubted, from the sure testimony of his certain works.
Some extreme sceptics, we know, doubt whether it is possible to deduce anything as to an author’s character from his works. Yet surely people do not keep a tame steam-engine to write their books; and if those books were really written by a man, he must have been a man who could write them; he must have had the thoughts which they express, have acquired the knowledge they contain, have possessed the style in which we read them. The difficulty is a defect of the critics. A person who knows nothing of an author he has read, will not know much of an author whom he has seen.
First of all, it may be said that Shakespeare’s works could only be produced by a first-rate imagination working on a first-rate experience. It is often difficult to make out whether the author of a poetic creation is drawing from fancy, or drawing from experience; but for art on a certain scale, the two must concur. Out of nothing, nothing can be created. Some plastic power is required, however great may be the material. And when such works as “Hamlet” and “Othello,” still more, when both they and others not unequal, have been created by a single mind, it may be fairly said, that not only a great imagination but a full conversancy with the world was necessary to their production. The whole powers of man under the most favourable circumstances, are not too great for such an effort. We may assume that Shakespeare had a great experience.
To a great experience one thing is essential, an experiencing nature. It is not enough to have opportunity, it is essential to feel it. Some occasions come to all men; but to many they are of little use, and to some they are none. What, for example, has experience done for the distinguished Frenchman, the name of whose essay is prefixed to this paper? M. Guizot is the same man that he was in 1820, or, we believe, as he was in 1814. Take up one of his lectures, published before he was a practical statesman; you will be struck with the width of view, the amplitude and the solidity of the reflections; you will be amazed that a mere literary teacher could produce anything so wise; but take up afterwards an essay published since his fall—and you will be amazed to find no more. Napoleon the First is come and gone—the Bourbons of the old régime have come and gone—the Bourbons of the new régime have had their turn. M. Guizot has been first minister of a citizen king; he has led a great party; he has pronounced many a great discours that was well received by the second elective assembly in the world. But there is no trace of this in his writings. No one would guess from them that their author had ever left the professor’s chair. It is the same, we are told, with small matters: when M. Guizot walks the street, he seems to see nothing; the head is thrown back, the eye fixed, and the mouth working. His mind is no doubt at work, but it is not stirred by what is external. Perhaps it is the internal activity of mind that overmasters the perceptive power. Anyhow there might have been an émeute in the street and he would not have known it; there have been revolutions in his life, and he is scarcely the wiser. Among the most frivolous and fickle of civilised nations he is alone. They pass from the game of war to the game of peace, from the game of science to the game of art, from the game of liberty to the game of slavery, from the game of slavery to the game of license; he stands like a schoolmaster in the playground, without sport and without pleasure, firm and sullen, slow and awful.
A man of this sort is a curious mental phenomenon. He appears to get early—perhaps to be born with—a kind of dry schedule or catalogue of the universe; he has a ledger in his head, and has a title to which he can refer any transaction; nothing puzzles him, nothing comes amiss to him, but he is not in the least the wiser for anything. Like the book-keeper, he has his heads of account, and he knows them, but he is no wiser for the particular items. After a busy day, and after a slow day, after a few entries, and after many, his knowledge is exactly the same: take his opinion of Baron Rothschild, he will say: “Yes, he keeps an account with us”; of Humphrey Brown: “Yes, we have that account, too”. Just so with the class of minds which we are speaking of, and in greater matters. Very early in life they come to a certain and considerable acquaintance with the world; they learn very quickly all they can learn, and naturally they never, in any way, learn any more. Mr. Pitt is, in this country, the type of the character. Mr. Alison, in a well-known passage, makes it a matter of wonder that he was fit to be a Chancellor of the Exchequer at twenty-three, and it is a great wonder. But it is to be remembered that he was no more fit at forty-three. As somebody said, he did not grow, he was cast. Experience taught him nothing, and he did not believe that he had anything to learn. The habit of mind in smaller degrees is not very rare, and might be illustrated without end. Hazlitt tells a story of West, the painter, that is in point: When some one asked him if he had ever been to Greece, he answered: “No; I have read a descriptive catalogue of the principal objects in that country, and I believe I am as well conversant with them as if I had visited it”. No doubt he was just as well conversant, and so would be any doctrinaire.
But Shakespeare was not a man of this sort. If he walked down a street, he knew what was in that street. His mind did not form in early life a classified list of all the objects in the universe, and learn no more about the universe ever after. From a certain fine sensibility of nature, it is plain that he took a keen interest not only in the general and coarse outlines of objects, but in their minutest particulars and gentlest gradations. You may open Shakespeare and find the clearest proofs of this; take the following:—
Or the more celebrated description of the hunt:—
It is absurd, by the way, to say we know nothing about the man who wrote that; we know that he had been after a hare. It is idle to allege that mere imagination would tell him that a hare is apt to run among a flock of sheep, or that its so doing disconcerts the scent of hounds. But no single citation really represents the power of the argument. Set descriptions may be manufactured to order, and it does not follow that even the most accurate or successful of them was really the result of a thorough and habitual knowledge of the object. A man who knows little of Nature may write one excellent delineation, as a poor man may have one bright guinea. Real opulence consists in having many. What truly indicates excellent knowledge, is the habit of constant, sudden, and almost unconscious allusion, which implies familiarity, for it can arise from that alone,—and this very species of incidental, casual, and perpetual reference to “the mighty world of eye and ear,”1 is the particular characteristic of Shakespeare.
In this respect Shakespeare had the advantage of one whom, in many points, he much resembled—Sir Walter Scott. For a great poet, the organisation of the latter was very blunt; he had no sense of smell, little sense of taste, almost no ear for music (he knew a few, perhaps three, Scotch tunes, which he avowed that he had learnt in sixty years, by hard labour and mental association), and not much turn for the minutiæ of Nature in any way. The effect of this may be seen in some of the best descriptive passages of his poetry, and we will not deny that it does (although proceeding from a sensuous defect), in a certain degree, add to their popularity. He deals with the main outlines and great points of Nature, never attends to any others, and in this respect he suits the comprehension and knowledge of many who know only those essential and considerable outlines. Young people, especially, who like big things, are taken with Scott, and bored by Wordsworth, who knew too much. And after all, the two poets are in proper harmony, each with his own scenery. Of all beautiful scenery the Scotch is the roughest and barest, as the English is the most complex and cultivated. What a difference is there between the minute and finished delicacy of Rydal Water and the rough simplicity of Loch Katrine! It is the beauty of civilisation beside the beauty of barbarism. Scott has himself pointed out the effect of this on arts and artists.
And this is wise, for there is beauty in the North as well as in the South. Only it is to be remembered that the beauty of the Trossachs is the result of but a few elements—say birch and brushwood, rough hills and narrow dells, much heather and many stones—while the beauty of England is one thing in one district and one in another; is here the combination of one set of qualities, and there the harmony of opposite ones, and is everywhere made up of many details and delicate refinements; all which require an exquisite delicacy of perceptive organisation, a seeing eye, a minutely hearing ear. Scott’s is the strong admiration of a rough mind; Shakespeare’s, the nice minuteness of a susceptible one.
A perfectly poetic appreciation of nature contains two elements, a knowledge of facts, and a sensibility to charms. Everybody who may have to speak to some naturalists will be well aware how widely the two may be separated. He will have seen that a man may study butterflies and forget that they are beautiful, or be perfect in the “Lunar theory” without knowing what most people mean by the moon. Generally such people prefer the stupid parts of nature—worms and Cochin-China fowls. But Shakespeare was not obtuse. The lines—
seem to show that he knew those feelings of youth, to which beauty is more than a religion.
In his mode of delineating natural objects Shakespeare is curiously opposed to Milton. The latter, who was still by temperament, and a schoolmaster by trade, selects a beautiful object, puts it straight out before him and his readers, and accumulates upon it all the learned imagery of a thousand years; Shakespeare glances at it and says something of his own. It is not our intention to say that, as a describer of the external world, Milton is inferior; in set description we rather think that he is the better. We only wish to contrast the mode in which the delineation is effected. The one is like an artist who dashes off any number of picturesque sketches at any moment; the other like a man who has lived at Rome, has undergone a thorough training, and by deliberate and conscious effort, after a long study of the best masters, can produce a few great pictures. Milton, accordingly, as has been often remarked, is careful in the choice of his subjects; he knows too well the value of his labour to be very ready to squander it; Shakespeare, on the contrary, describes anything that comes to hand, for he is prepared for it whatever it may be, and what he paints he paints without effort. Compare any passage from Shakespeare—for example, those quoted before—and the following passage from Milton:—
Why, you could draw a map of it. It is not “Nature boon,” but “nice art in beds and curious knots”; it is exactly the old (and excellent) style of artificial gardening, by which any place can be turned into trim hedgerows, and stiff borders, and comfortable shades; but there are no straight lines in Nature or Shakespeare. Perhaps the contrast may be accounted for by the way in which the two poets acquired their knowledge of scenes and scenery. We think we demonstrated before that Shakespeare was a sportsman, but if there be still a sceptic or a dissentient, let him read the following remarks on dogs:—
“Judge when you hear.”3 It is evident that the man who wrote this was a judge of dogs, was an out-of-door sporting man, full of natural sensibility, not defective in “daintiness of ear,” and above all things, apt to cast on Nature random, sportive, half-boyish glances, which reveal so much, and bequeath such abiding knowledge. Milton, on the contrary, went out to see Nature. He left a narrow cell, and the intense study which was his “portion in this life,” to take a slow, careful, and reflective walk. In his treatise on education he has given us his notion of the way in which young people should be familiarised with natural objects. “But,” he remarks, “to return to our institute; besides these constant exercises at home, there is another opportunity of gaining pleasure from pleasure itself abroad; in those vernal seasons of the year when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against Nature, not to go out and see her riches and partake in her rejoicing in heaven and earth. I should not therefore be a persuader to them of studying much in these, after two or three years, that they have well laid their grounds, but to ride out in companies, with prudent and staid guides, to all quarters of the land; learning and observing all places of strength, all commodities of building and of soil, for towns and tillage, harbours and ports of trade. Sometimes taking sea as far as our navy, to learn there also what they can in the practical knowledge of sailing and of sea-fight.” Fancy “the prudent and staid guides”. What a machinery for making pedants. Perhaps Shakespeare would have known that the conversation would be in this sort: “I say, Shallow, that mare is going in the knees. She has never been the same since you larked her over the fivebar, while Moleyes was talking clay and agriculture. I do not hate Latin so much, but I hate ‘argillaceous earth’; and what use is that to a fellow in the Guards, I should like to know?” Shakespeare had himself this sort of boyish buoyancy. He was not “one of the staid guides”. We might further illustrate it. Yet this would be tedious enough, and we prefer to go on and show what we mean by an experiencing nature in relation to men and women, just as we have striven to indicate what it is in relation to horses and hares.
The reason why so few good books are written, is that so few people that can write know anything. In general an author has always lived in a room, has read books, has cultivated science, is acquainted with the style and sentiments of the best authors, but he is out of the way of employing his own eyes and ears. He has nothing to hear and nothing to see. His life is a vacuum. The mental habits of Robert Southey, which about a year ago were so extensively praised in the public journals, are the type of literary existence, just as the praise bestowed on them shows the admiration excited by them among literary people. He wrote poetry (as if anybody could) before breakfast; he read during breakfast. He wrote history until dinner; he corrected proof-sheets between dinner and tea; he wrote an essay for the Quarterly afterwards; and after supper, by way of relaxation, composed the “Doctor”—a lengthy and elaborate jest. Now, what can any one think of such a life—except how clearly it shows that the habits best fitted for communicating information, formed with the best care, and daily regulated by the best motives, are exactly the habits which are likely to afford a man the least information to communicate. Southey had no events, no experiences. His wife kept house and allowed him pocket-money, just as if he had been a German professor devoted to accents, tobacco, and the dates of Horace’s amours. And it is pitiable to think that so meritorious a life was only made endurable by a painful delusion. He thought that day by day, and hour by hour, he was accumulating stores for the instruction and entertainment of a long posterity. His epics were to be in the hands of all men, and his history of Brazil, the “Herodotus of the South American Republics”. As if his epics were not already dead, and as if the people who now cheat at Valparaiso care a real who it was that cheated those before them. Yet it was only by a conviction like this that an industrious and caligraphic man (for such was Robert Southey), who might have earned money as a clerk, worked all his days for half a clerk’s wages, at occupation much duller and more laborious. The critic in The Vicar of Wakefield lays down that you should always say that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains; but in the case of the practised literary man, you should often enough say that the writings would have been much better if the writer had taken less pains. He says he has devoted his life to the subject—the reply is: “Then you have taken the best way to prevent your making anything of it”. Instead of reading studiously what Burgersdicius and Ænœsidemus said men were, you should have gone out yourself, and seen (if you can see) what they are.
After all, the original way of writing books may turn out to be the best. The first author, it is plain, could not have taken anything from books, since there were no books for him to copy from; he looked at things for himself. Anyhow, the modern system fails, for where are the amusing books from voracious students and habitual writers? Not that we mean exactly to say that an author’s hard reading is the cause of his writing that which is hard to read. This would be near the truth, but not quite the truth. The two are concomitant effects of a certain defective nature. Slow men read well, but write ill. The abstracted habit, the want of keen exterior interests, the aloofness of mind from what is next it, all tend to make a man feel an exciting curiosity and interest about remote literary events, the toil of scholastic logicians, and the petty feuds of Argos and Lacedæmon; but they also tend to make a man very unable to explain and elucidate those exploits for the benefit of his fellows. What separates the author from his readers, will make it proportionably difficult for him to explain himself to them. Secluded habits do not tend to eloquence; and the indifferent apathy which is so common in studious persons is exceedingly unfavourable to the liveliness of narration and illustration which is needed for excellence in even the simpler sorts of writing. Moreover, in general it will perhaps be found that persons devoted to mere literature commonly become devoted to mere idleness. They wish to produce a great work, but they find they cannot. Having relinquished everything to devote themselves to this, they conclude on trial that this is impossible. They wish to write, but nothing occurs to them. Therefore they write nothing, and they do nothing. As has been said, they have nothing to do. Their life has no events, unless they are very poor. With any decent means of subsistence, they have nothing to rouse them from an indolent and musing dream. A merchant must meet his bills, or he is civilly dead and uncivilly remembered. But a student may know nothing of time and be too lazy to wind up his watch. In the retired citizen’s journal in Addison’s Spectator, we have the type of this way of spending the time: Mem. Morning 8 to 9, “Went into the parlour and tied on my shoe-buckles”. This is the sort of life for which studious men commonly relinquish the pursuits of business and the society of their fellows.
Yet all literary men are not tedious, neither are they all slow. One great example even these most tedious times have luckily given us, to show us what may be done by a really great man even now, the same who before served as an illustration—Sir Walter Scott. In his lifetime people denied he was a poet, but nobody said that he was not “the best fellow” in Scotland—perhaps that was not much—or that he had not more wise joviality, more living talk, more graphic humour, than any man in Great Britain. “Wherever we went,” said Mr. Wordsworth, “we found his name acted as an open sesame, and I believe that in the character of the sheriff’s friends, we might have counted on a hearty welcome under any roof in the border country.” Never neglect to talk to people with whom you are casually thrown, was his precept, and he exemplified the maxim himself. “I believe,” observes his biographer, “that Scott has somewhere expressed in print his satisfaction, that amid all the changes of our manners, the ancient freedom of personal intercourse may still be indulged between a master and an out-of-door servant; but in truth he kept by the old fashion, even with domestic servants, to an extent which I have hardly ever seen practised by any other gentleman. He conversed with his coachman if he sat by him, as he often did, on the box—with his footman, if he chanced to be in the rumble. Indeed, he did not confine his humanity to his own people; any steady-going servant of a friend of his was soon considered as a sort of friend too, and was sure to have a kind little colloquy to himself at coming or going.” “Sir Walter speaks to every man as if he was his blood relation,” was the expressive comment of one of these dependants. It was in this way that he acquired the great knowledge of various kinds of men, which is so clear and conspicuous in his writings; nor could that knowledge have been acquired on easier terms, or in any other way. No man could describe the character of Dandie Dinmont, without having been in Lidderdale. Whatever has been once in a book may be put into a book again; but an original character, taken at first hand from the sheepwalks and from Nature, must be seen in order to be known. A man, to be able to describe—indeed, to be able to know—various people in life, must be able at sight to comprehend their essential features, to know how they shade one into another, to see how they diversify the common uniformity of civilised life. Nor does this involve simply intellectual or even imaginative pre-requisites, still less will it be facilitated by exquisite senses or subtle fancy. What is wanted is, to be able to appreciate mere clay—which mere mind never will. If you will describe the people,—nay, if you will write for the people, you must be one of the people. You must have led their life, and must wish to lead their life. However strong in any poet may be the higher qualities of abstract thought or conceiving fancy, unless he can actually sympathise with those around him, he can never describe those around him. Any attempt to produce a likeness of what is not really liked by the person who is describing it, will end in the creation of what may be correct, but is not living—of what may be artistic, but is likewise artificial.
Perhaps this is the defect of the works of the greatest dramatic genius of recent times—Goethe. His works are too much in the nature of literary studies; the mind is often deeply impressed by them, but one doubts if the author was. He saw them as he saw the houses of Weimar and the plants in the act of metamorphosis. He had a clear perception of their fixed condition and their successive transitions, but he did not really (if we may so speak) comprehend their motive power. So to say, he appreciated their life, but not their liveliness. Niebuhr, as is well known, compared the most elaborate of Goethe’s works—the novel Wilhelm Meister—to a menagerie of tame animals, meaning thereby, as we believe, to express much the same distinction. He felt that there was a deficiency in mere vigour and rude energy. We have a long train and no engine—a great accumulation of excellent matter, arranged and ordered with masterly skill, but not animated with overbuoyant and unbounded play. And we trace this not to a defect in imaginative power, a defect which it would be a simple absurdity to impute to Goethe, but to the tone of his character and the habits of his mind. He moved hither and thither through life, but he was always a man apart. He mixed with unnumbered kinds of men, with courts and academies, students and women, camps and artists, but everywhere he was with them, yet not of them. In every scene he was there, and he made it clear that he was there with a reserve and as a stranger. He went there to experience. As a man of universal culture and well skilled in the order and classification of human life, the fact of any one class or order being beyond his reach or comprehension seemed an absurdity, and it was an absurdity. He thought that he was equal to moving in any description of society, and he was equal to it; but then on that exact account he was absorbed in none. There were none of surpassing and immeasurably preponderating captivation. No scene and no subject were to him what Scotland and Scotch nature were to Sir Walter Scott. “If I did not see the heather once a year, I should die,” said the latter; but Goethe would have lived without it, and it would not have cost him much trouble. In every one of Scott’s novels there is always the spirit of the old moss-trooper—the flavour of the ancient border; there is the intense sympathy which enters into the most living moments of the most living characters—the lively energy which becomes the energy of the most vigorous persons delineated. “Marmion” was “written” while he was galloping on horseback. It reads as if it were so.
Now it appears that Shakespeare not only had that various commerce with, and experience of men, which was common both to Goethe and to Scott, but also that he agrees with the latter rather than with the former in the kind and species of that experience. He was not merely with men, but of men; he was not a “thing apart,”1 with a clear intuition of what was in those around him; he had in his own nature the germs and tendencies of the very elements that he described. He knew what was in man, for he felt it in himself. Throughout all his writings you see an amazing sympathy with common people, rather an excessive tendency to dwell on the common features of ordinary lives. You feel that common people could have been cut out of him, but not without his feeling it; for it would have deprived him of a very favourite subject—of a portion of his ideas to which he habitually recurred.
What would you with me, honest neighbour?
Marry, sir, I would have some confidence with you, that discerns you nearly.
Brief, I pray you; for you see ’tis a busy time with me.
Marry, this it is, sir.
Yes, in truth it is, sir.
What is it, my good friends?
Goodman Verges, sir, speaks a little off the matter: an old man, sir, and his wits are not so blunt, as, God help, I would desire they were; but, in faith, honest as the skin between his brows.
Yes, I thank God, I am as honest as any man living, that is an old man, and no honester than I.
Comparisons are odorous:—palabras, neighbour Verges.
Neighbours, you are tedious.
It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the poor duke’s officers; but, truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king, I could find in my heart to bestow it all of your worship.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I would fain know what you have to say.
Marry, sir, our watch to-night, excepting your worship’s presence, have ta’en a couple of as arrant knaves as any in Messina.
A good old man, sir; he will be talking; as they say, When the age is in, the wit is out; God help us! it is a world to see!—Well said, i’ faith, neighbour Verges:—well, God’s a good man; an two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind:—An honest soul, i’ faith, sir; by my troth he is, as ever broke bread; but God is to be worshipped: All men are not alike; alas, good neighbour!
Indeed, neighbour, he comes too far short of you.
Gifts that God gives,”—etc., etc.1
By her he had two children at one birth.
Ay, there’s the question; but, I say, ’tis true:
Nay, ’tis too true; therefore he shall be king.
Sir, he made a chimney in my father’s house, and the bricks are alive at this day to testify it; therefore, deny it not.”1
Shakespeare was too wise not to know that for most of the purposes of human life stupidity is a most valuable element. He had nothing of the impatience which sharp logical narrow minds habitually feel when they come across those who do not apprehend their quick and precise deductions. No doubt he talked to the stupid players, to the stupid doorkeeper, to the property man, who considers paste jewels “very preferable, besides the expense”—talked with the stupid apprentices of stupid Fleet Street, and had much pleasure in ascertaining what was their notion of “King Lear”. In his comprehensive mind it was enough if every man hitched well into his own place in human life. If every one were logical and literary, how would there be scavengers, or watchmen, or caulkers, or coopers? Narrow minds will be “subdued to what” they “work in”. The “dyer’s hand”2 will not more clearly carry off its tint, nor will what is moulded more precisely indicate the confines of the mould. A patient sympathy, a kindly fellow-feeling for the narrow intelligence necessarily induced by narrow circumstances—a narrowness which, in some degrees, seems to be inevitable, and is perhaps more serviceable than most things to the wise conduct of life—this, though quick and half-bred minds may despise it, seems to be a necessary constituent in the composition of manifold genius. “How shall the world be served?” asks the host in Chaucer. We must have cart-horses as well as race-horses, draymen as well as poets. It is no bad thing, after all, to be a slow man and to have one idea a year. You don’t make a figure, perhaps, in argumentative society, which requires a quicker species of thought, but is that the worse?
Via, Goodman Dull; thou hast spoken no word all this while.
Nor understood none either, sir.
Allons, we will employ thee.
I’ll make one in a dance or so, or I will play on the tabor to the worthies, and let them dance the hay.
Most dull, honest Dull, to our sport away.”1
And such, we believe, was the notion of Shakespeare.
S. T. Coleridge has a nice criticism which bears on this point. He observes that in the narrations of uneducated people in Shakespeare, just as in real life, there is a want of prospectiveness and a superfluous amount of regressiveness. People of this sort are unable to look a long way in front of them, and they wander from the right path. They get on too fast with one half, and then the other hopelessly lags. They can tell a story exactly as it is told to them (as an animal can go step by step where it has been before), but they can’t calculate its bearings beforehand, or see how it is to be adapted to those to whom they are speaking, nor do they know how much they have thoroughly told and how much they have not. “I went up the street, then I went down the street; no, first went down and then—but you do not follow me; I go before you, sir.” Thence arises the complex style usually adopted by persons not used to narration. They tumble into a story and get on as they can. This is scarcely the sort of thing which a man could foresee. Of course a metaphysician can account for it, and, like Coleridge, assure you that if he had not observed it, he could have predicted it in a moment; but, nevertheless, it is too refined a conclusion to be made out from known premises by common reasoning. Doubtless there is some reason why negroes have woolly hair (and if you look into a philosophical treatise, you will find that the author could have made out that it would be so, if he had not, by a mysterious misfortune, known from infancy that it was the fact),—still one could never have supposed it oneself. And in the same manner, though the profounder critics may explain in a satisfactory and refined manner, how the confused and undulating style of narration is peculiarly incident to the mere multitude, yet it is most likely that Shakespeare derived his acquaintance with it from the fact, from actual hearing, and not from what may be the surer, but is the slower, process of metaphysical deduction. The best passage to illustrate this is that in which the nurse gives a statement of Juliet’s age; but it will not exactly suit our pages. The following of Mrs. Quickly will suffice:—
“Tilly-fally, Sir John, never tell me; your ancient swaggerer comes not in my doors. I was before Master Tizzick, the Deputy, the other day; and, as he said to me,—it was no longer ago than Wednesday last,—Neighbour Quickly, says he;—Master Dumb, our minister, was by then;—Neighbour Quickly, says he, receive those that are civil; for, saith he, you are in an ill name:—now, he said so, I can tell you whereupon; for, says he, you are an honest woman, and well thought on; therefore take heed to what guests you receive: Receive, says he, no swaggering companions.—There comes none here;—you would bless you to hear what he said:—no, I’ll no swaggerers.”1
Now, it is quite impossible that this, any more than the political reasoning on the parentage of Cade, which was cited before, should have been written by one not habitually and sympathisingly conversant with the talk of the illogical classes. Shakespeare felt, if we may say so, the force of the bad reasoning. He did not, like a sharp logician, angrily detect a flaw, and set it down as a fallacy of reference or a fallacy of amphibology. This is not the English way, though Dr. Whately’s logic has been published so long (and, as he says himself, must now be deemed to be irrefutable, since no one has ever offered any refutation of it). Yet still people in this country do not like to be committed to distinct premises. They like a Chancellor of the Exchequer to say: “It has during very many years been maintained by the honourable member for Montrose that two and two make four, and I am free to say, that I think there is a great deal to be said in favour of that opinion; but, without committing her Majesty’s Government to that proposition as an abstract sentiment, I will go so far as to assume two and two are not sufficient to make five, which with the permission of the House, will be a sufficient basis for all the operations which I propose to enter upon during the present year”. We have no doubt Shakespeare reasoned in that way himself. Like any other Englishman, when he had a clear course before him, he rather liked to shuffle over little hitches in the argument, and on that account he had a great sympathy with those who did so too. He would never have interrupted Mrs. Quickly; he saw that her mind was going to and fro over the subject; he saw that it was coming right, and this was enough for him, and will be also enough of this topic for our readers.
We think we have proved that Shakespeare had an enormous specific acquaintance with the common people; that this can only be obtained by sympathy. It likewise has a further condition.
In spiritedness, the style of Shakespeare is very like to that of Scott. The description of a charge of cavalry in Scott reads, as was said before, as if it was written on horseback. A play by Shakespeare reads as if it were written in a playhouse. The great critics assure you that a theatrical audience must be kept awake, but Shakespeare knew this of his own knowledge. When you read him, you feel a sensation of motion, a conviction that there is something “up,” a notion that not only is something being talked about, but also that something is being done. We do not imagine that Shakespeare owed this quality to his being a player, but rather that he became a player because he possessed this quality of mind. For after, and notwithstanding, everything which has been, or may be, said against the theatrical profession, it certainly does require from those who pursue it a certain quickness and liveliness of mind. Mimics are commonly an elastic sort of persons, and it takes a little levity of disposition to enact even the “heavy fathers”. If a boy joins a company of strolling players, you may be sure that he is not a “good boy”; he may be a trifle foolish, or a thought romantic, but certainly he is not slow. And this was in truth the case with Shakespeare. They say, too, that in the beginning he was a first-rate link-boy; and the tradition is affecting, though we fear it is not quite certain. Anyhow, you feel about Shakespeare that he could have been a link-boy. In the same way you feel he may have been a player. You are sure at once that he could not have followed any sedentary kind of life. But wheresoever there was anything acted in earnest or in jest, by way of mock representation or by way of serious reality, there he found matter for his mind. If anybody could have any doubt about the liveliness of Shakespeare, let them consider the character of Falstaff. When a man has created that without a capacity for laughter, then a blind man may succeed in describing colours. Intense animal spirits are the single sentiment (if they be a sentiment) of the entire character. If most men were to save up all the gaiety of their whole lives, it would come about to the gaiety of one speech in Falstaff. A morose man might have amassed many jokes, might have observed many details of jovial society, might have conceived a Sir John, marked by rotundity of body, but could hardly have imagined what we call his rotundity of mind. We mean that the animal spirits of Falstaff give him an easy, vague, diffusive sagacity which is peculiar to him. A morose man, Iago, for example, may know anything, and is apt to know a good deal; but what he knows is generally all in corners. He knows number 1, number 2, number 3, and so on, but there is not anything continuous, or smooth, or fluent in his knowledge. Persons conversant with the works of Hazlitt will know in a minute what we mean. Everything which he observed he seemed to observe from a certain soreness of mind; he looked at people because they offended him; he had the same vivid notion of them that a man has of objects which grate on a wound in his body. But there is nothing at all of this in Falstaff; on the contrary, everything pleases him, and everything is food for a joke. Cheerfulness and prosperity give an easy abounding sagacity of mind which nothing else does give. Prosperous people bound easily over all the surface of things which their lives present to them; very likely they keep to the surface; there are things beneath or above to which they may not penetrate or attain, but what is on any part of the surface, that they know well. “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call life,”1 and they do not lift it. What is sublime or awful above, what is “sightless and drear”2 beneath,—these they may not dream of. Nor is any one piece or corner of life so well impressed on them as on minds less happily constituted. It is only people who have had a tooth out, that really know the dentist’s waiting-room. Yet such people, for the time at least, know nothing but that and their tooth. The easy and sympathising friend who accompanies them knows everything; hints gently at the contents of the Times, and would cheer you with Lord Palmerston’s replies. So, on a greater scale, the man of painful experience knows but too well what has hurt him, and where and why; but the happy have a vague and rounded view of the round world, and such was the knowledge of Falstaff.
It is to be observed that these high spirits are not a mere excrescence or superficial point in an experiencing nature; on the contrary, they seem to be essential, if not to its idea or existence, at least to its exercise and employment. How are you to know people without talking to them, but how are you to talk to them without tiring yourself? A common man is exhausted in half an hour; Scott or Shakespeare could have gone on for a whole day. This is, perhaps, peculiarly necessary for a painter of English life. The basis of our national character seems to be a certain energetic humour, which may be found in full vigour in old Chaucer’s time, and in great perfection in at least one of the popular writers of this age, and which is, perhaps, most easily described by the name of our greatest painter—Hogarth. It is amusing to see how entirely the efforts of critics and artists fail to naturalise in England any other sort of painting. Their efforts are fruitless; for the people painted are not English people: they may be Italians, or Greeks, or Jews, but it is quite certain that they are foreigners. We should not fancy that modern art ought to resemble the mediæval. So long as artists attempt the same class of paintings as Raphael, they will not only be inferior to Raphael, but they will never please, as they might please, the English people. What we want is what Hogarth gave us—a representation of ourselves. It may be that we are wrong, that we ought to prefer something of the old world, some scene in Rome or Athens, some tale from Carmel or Jerusalem; but, after all, we do not. These places are, we think, abroad, and had their greatness in former times; we wish a copy of what now exists, and of what we have seen. London we know, and Manchester we know, but where are all these? It is the same with literature, Milton excepted, and even Milton can hardly be called a popular writer; all great English writers describe English people, and in describing them, they give, as they must give, a large comic element; and, speaking generally, this is scarcely possible, except in the case of cheerful and easy-living men. There is, no doubt, a biting satire, like that of Swift, which has for its essence misanthropy. There is the mockery of Voltaire, which is based on intellectual contempt; but this is not our English humour—it is not that of Shakespeare and Falstaff; ours is the humour of a man who laughs when he speaks, of flowing enjoyment, of an experiencing nature.
Yet it would be a great error if we gave anything like an exclusive prominence to this aspect of Shakespeare. Thus he appeared to those around him—in some degrees they knew that he was a cheerful, and humorous, and happy man; but of his higher gift they knew less than we. A great painter of men must (as has been said) have a faculty of conversing, but he must also have a capacity for solitude. There is much of mankind that a man can only learn from himself. Behind every man’s external life, which he leads in company, there is another which he leads alone, and which he carries with him apart. We see but one aspect of our neighbour, as we see but one side of the moon; in either case there is also a dark half, which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself. And if we would study the internal lives of others, it seems essential that we should begin with our own. If we study this our datum, if we attain to see and feel how this influences and evolves itself in our social and (so to say) public life, then it is possible that we may find in the lives of others the same or analogous features; and if we do not, then at least we may suspect that those who want them are deficient likewise in the secret agencies which we feel produce them in ourselves. The metaphysicians assert that people originally picked up the idea of the existence of other people in this way. It is orthodox doctrine that a baby says: “I have a mouth, mamma has a mouth: therefore I’m the same species as mamma. I have a nose, papa has a nose: therefore papa is the same genus as me.” But whether or not this ingenious idea really does or does not represent the actual process by which we originally obtain an acquaintance with the existence of minds analogous to our own, it gives unquestionably the process by which we obtain our notion of that part of those minds which they never exhibit consciously to others, and which only becomes predominant in secrecy and solitude and to themselves. Now, that Shakespeare has this insight into the musing life of man, as well as into his social life, is easy to prove; take, for instance, the following passages:—
No slight versatility of mind and pliancy of fancy could pass at will from scenes such as these to the ward of Eastcheap and the society which heard the chimes at midnight. One of the reasons of the rarity of great imaginative works is that in very few cases is this capacity for musing solitude combined with that of observing mankind. A certain constitutional though latent melancholy is essential to such a nature. This is the exceptional characteristic in Shakespeare. All through his works you feel you are reading the popular author, the successful man; but through them all there is a certain tinge of musing sadness pervading, and, as it were, softening their gaiety. Not a trace can be found of “eating cares” or narrow and mind-contracting toil, but everywhere there is, in addition to shrewd sagacity and buoyant wisdom, a refining element of chastening sensibility, which prevents sagacity from being rough, and shrewdness from becoming cold. He had an eye for either sort of life:—
In another point also Shakespeare, as he was, must be carefully contrasted with the estimate that would be formed of him from such delineations as that of Falstaff, and that was doubtless frequently made by casual, though only by casual, frequenters of the Mermaid. It has been said that the mind of Shakespeare contained within it the mind of Scott; it remains to be observed that it contained also the mind of Keats. For, beside the delineation of human life, and beside also the delineation of Nature, there remains also for the poet a third subject—the delineation of fancies. Of course these, be they what they may, are like to, and were originally borrowed from, either man or Nature—from one or from both together. We know but two things in the simple way of direct experience, and whatever else we know must be in some mode or manner compacted out of them. Yet “books are a substantial world, both pure and good,” and so are fancies too. In all countries, men have devised to themselves a whole series of half-divine creations—mythologies Greek and Roman, fairies, angels, beings who may be, for aught we know, but with whom, in the meantime, we can attain to no conversation. The most known of these mythologies are the Greek, and what is, we suppose, the second epoch of the Gothic, the fairies; and it so happens that Shakespeare has dealt with them both, and in a remarkable manner. We are not, indeed, of those critics who profess simple and unqualified admiration for the poem of “Venus and Adonis”. It seems intrinsically, as we know it from external testimony to have been, a juvenile production, written when Shakespeare’s nature might be well expected to be crude and unripened. Power is shown, and power of a remarkable kind; but it is not displayed in a manner that will please or does please the mass of men. In spite of the name of its author, the poem has never been popular—and surely this is sufficient. Nevertheless, it is remarkable as a literary exercise, and as a treatment of a singular, though unpleasant subject. The fanciful class of poems differ from others in being laid, so far as their scene goes, in a perfectly unseen world. The type of such productions is Keats’s “Endymion”. We mean that it is the type, not as giving the abstract perfection of this sort of art, but because it shows and embodies both its excellences and defects in a very marked and prominent manner. In that poem there are no passions and no actions, there is no art and no life; but there is beauty, and that is meant to be enough, and to a reader of one and twenty it is enough and more. What are exploits or speeches? what is Cæsar or Coriolanus? what is a tragedy like “Lear,” or a real view of human life in any kind whatever, to people who do not know and do not care what human life is? In early youth it is, perhaps, not true that the passions, taken generally, are particularly violent, or that the imagination is in any remarkable degree powerful; but it is certain that the fancy (which though it be, in the last resort, but a weak stroke of that same faculty, which, when it strikes hard, we call imagination, may yet for this purpose be looked on as distinct) is particularly wakeful, and that the gentler species of passions are more absurd than they are afterwards. And the literature of this period of human life runs naturally away from the real world; away from the less ideal portion of it, from stocks and stones, and aunts and uncles, and rests on mere half-embodied sentiments, which in the hands of great poets assume a kind of semipersonality, and are, to the distinction between things and persons, “as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine”.1 The Sonnets of Shakespeare belong exactly to the same school of poetry. They are not the sort of verses to take any particular hold upon the mind permanently and for ever, but at a certain period they take too much. For a young man to read in the spring of the year among green fields and in gentle air, they are the ideal. As First of April poetry they are perfect.
The “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is of another order. If the question were to be decided by “Venus and Adonis,” in spite of the unmeasured panegyrics of many writers, we should be obliged in equity to hold, that as a poet of mere fancy Shakespeare was much inferior to the late Mr. Keats and even to meaner men. Moreover, we should have been prepared with some refined reasonings to show that it was unlikely that a poet with so much hold on reality, in life and Nature, both in solitude and in society, should have also a similar command over unreality: should possess a command not only of flesh and blood, but of the imaginary entities which the self-inworking fancy brings forth—impalpable conceptions of mere mind: quædam simulacra miris pallentia modis,2 thin ideas, which come we know not whence, and are given us we know not why. But, unfortunately for this ingenious, if not profound suggestion, Shakespeare, in fact, possessed the very faculty which it tends to prove that he would not possess. He could paint Poins and Falstaff, but he excelled also in fairy legends. He had such
As, for example, the idea of Puck, or Queen Mab, of Ariel, or such a passage as the following:—
Probably he believed in these things. Why not? Everybody else believed in them then. They suit our climate. As the Greek mythology suits the keen Attic sky, the fairies, indistinct and half-defined, suit a land of wild mists and gentle airs. They confuse the “maidens of the villagery”; they are the paganism of the South of England.
Can it be made out what were Shakespeare’s political views? We think it certainly can, and that without difficulty. From the English historical plays, it distinctly appears that he accepted, like everybody then, the Constitution of his country. His lot was not cast in an age of political controversy, nor of reform. What was, was from of old. The Wars of the Roses had made it very evident how much room there was for the evils incident to an hereditary monarchy, for instance, those of a controverted succession, and the evils incident to an aristocracy, as want of public spirit and audacious selfishness, to arise and continue within the realm of England. Yet they had not repelled, and had barely disconcerted, our conservative ancestors. They had not become Jacobins; they did not concur—and history, except in Shakespeare, hardly does justice to them—in Jack Cade’s notion that the laws should come out of his mouth, or that the commonwealth was to be reformed by interlocutors in this scene.
I tell thee, Jack Cade the clothier means to dress the Commonwealth, and turn it, and set a new nap on it.
So he had need, for ’tis threadbare. Well, I say it was never a merry world in England since gentlemen came up.
O miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handycraftsmen.
The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.
Nay more: the king’s council are no good workmen.
True; and yet it is said, Labour in thy vocation; which is as much as to say, as let the magistrates be labouring men, and therefore should we be magistrates.
Thou hast hit it, for there is no better sign of a brave mind than a hard hand.
I see them! I see them!”1
The English people did see them, and know them, and therefore have rejected them. An audience which, bonâ fide, entered into the merit of this scene, would never believe in everybody’s suffrage. They would know that there is such a thing as nonsense, and when a man has once attained to that deep conception, you may be sure of him ever after. And though it would be absurd to say that Shakespeare originated this idea, or that the disbelief in simple democracy is owing to his teaching or suggestions, yet it may, nevertheless, be truly said, that he shared in the peculiar knowledge of men—and also possessed the peculiar constitution of mind—which engenders this effect. The author of “Coriolanus” never believed in a mob, and did something towards preventing anybody else from doing so. But this political idea was not exactly the strongest in Shakespeare’s mind. We think he had two other stronger, or as strong. First, the feeling of loyalty to the ancient polity of this country—not because it was good, but because it existed. In his time, people no more thought of the origin of the monarchy than they did of the origin of the Mendip Hills. The one had always been there, and so had the other. God (such was the common notion) had made both, and one as much as the other. Everywhere, in that age, the common modes of political speech assumed the existence of certain utterly national institutions, and would have been worthless and nonsensical except on that assumption. This national habit appears as it ought to appear in our national dramatist. A great divine tells us that the Thirty-nine Articles are “forms of thought”; inevitable conditions of the religious understanding: in politics, “kings, lords, and commons” are, no doubt, “forms of thought,” to the great majority of Englishmen; in these they live, and beyond these they never move. You can’t reason on the removal (such is the notion) of the English Channel, nor St. George’s Channel, nor can you of the English Constitution, in like manner. It is to most of us, and to the happiest of us, a thing immutable, and such, no doubt, it was to Shakespeare, which, if any one would have proved, let him refer at random to any page of the historical English plays.
The second peculiar tenet which we ascribe to his political creed, is a disbelief in the middle classes. We fear he had no opinion of traders. In this age, we know, it is held that the keeping of a shop is equivalent to a political education. Occasionally, in country villages, where the trader sells everything, he is thought to know nothing, and has no vote; but in a town where he is a householder (as, indeed, he is in the country), and sells only one thing—there we assume that he knows everything. And this assumption is, in the opinion of some observers, confirmed by the fact. Sir Walter Scott used to relate, that when, after a trip to London, he returned to Tweedside, he always found the people in that district knew more of politics than the Cabinet. And so it is with the mercantile community in modern times. If you are a Chancellor of the Exchequer, it is possible that you may be acquainted with finance; but if you sell figs it is certain that you will. Now we nowhere find this laid down in Shakespeare. On the contrary, you will generally find that when a “citizen” is mentioned, he generally does or says something absurd. Shakespeare had a clear perception that it is possible to bribe a class as well as an individual, and that personal obscurity is but an insecure guarantee for political disinterestedness.
He everywhere speaks in praise of a tempered and ordered and qualified polity, in which the pecuniary classes have a certain influence, but no more, and shows in every page a keen sensibility to the large views and high-souled energies, the gentle refinements and disinterested desires, in which those classes are likely to be especially deficient. He is particularly the poet of personal nobility, though, throughout his writings, there is a sense of freedom, just as Milton is the poet of freedom, though with an underlying reference to personal nobility; indeed, we might well expect our two poets to combine the appreciation of a rude and generous liberty with that of a delicate and refined nobleness, since it is the union of these two elements that characterises our society and their experience.
There are two things—good-tempered sense and ill-tempered sense. In our remarks on the character of Falstaff, we hope we have made it very clear that Shakespeare had the former; we think it nearly as certain that he possessed the latter also. An instance of this might be taken from that contempt for the perspicacity of the bourgeoisie which we have just been mentioning. It is within the limits of what may be called malevolent sense, to take extreme and habitual pleasure in remarking the foolish opinions, the narrow notions, and fallacious deductions which seem to cling to the pompous and prosperous man of business. Ask him his opinion of the currency question, and he puts “bills” and “bullion” together in a sentence, and he does not seem to care what he puts between them. But a more proper instance of (what has an odd sound), the malevolence of Shakespeare is to be found in the play of “Measure for Measure”. We agree with Hazlitt, that this play seems to be written, perhaps more than any other, con amore, and with a relish; and this seems to be the reason why, notwithstanding the unpleasant nature of its plot, and the absence of any very attractive character, it is yet one of the plays which take hold on the mind most easily and most powerfully. Now the entire character of Angelo, which is the expressive feature of the piece, is nothing but a successful embodiment of the pleasure, the malevolent pleasure, which a warm-blooded and expansive man takes in watching the rare, the dangerous and inanimate excesses of the constrained and cold-blooded. One seems to see Shakespeare, with his bright eyes and his large lips and buoyant face, watching with a pleasant excitement the excesses of his thin-lipped and calculating creation, as though they were the excesses of a real person. It is the complete picture of a natural hypocrite, who does not consciously disguise strong impulses, but whose very passions seem of their own accord to have disguised themselves and retreated into the recesses of the character, yet only to recur even more dangerously when their proper period is expired, when the will is cheated into security by their absence, and the world (and, it may be, the “judicious person” himself) is impressed with a sure reliance in his chilling and remarkable rectitude.
It has, we believe, been doubted whether Shakespeare was a man much conversant with the intimate society of women. Of course no one denies that he possessed a great knowledge of them—a capital acquaintance with their excellences, faults, and foibles; but it has been thought that this was the result rather of imagination than of society, of creative fancy rather than of perceptive experience. Now that Shakespeare possessed, among other singular qualities, a remarkable imaginative knowledge of women, is quite certain, for he was acquainted with the soliloquies of women. A woman, we suppose, like a man, must be alone, in order to speak a soliloquy. After the greatest possible intimacy and experience, it must still be imagination, or fancy at least, which tells any man what a woman thinks of herself and to herself. There will still—get as near the limits of confidence or observation as you can—be a space which must be filled up from other means. Men can only divine the truth—reserve, indeed, is a part of its charm. Seeing, therefore, that Shakespeare had done what necessarily and certainly must be done without experience, we were in some doubt whether he might not have dispensed with it altogether. A grave reviewer cannot know these things. We thought indeed of reasoning that since the delineations of women in Shakespeare were admitted to be first-rate, it should follow—at least there was a fair presumption—that no means or aid had been wanting to their production, and that consequently we ought, in the absence of distinct evidence, to assume that personal intimacy as well as solitary imagination had been concerned in their production. And we meant to cite the “questions about Octavia,” which Lord Byron, who thought he had the means of knowing, declared to be “women all over”.
But all doubt was removed and all conjecture set to rest by the coming in of an ably-dressed friend from the external world, who mentioned that the language of Shakespeare’s women was essentially female language; that there were certain points and peculiarities in the English of cultivated English women, which made it a language of itself, which must be heard familiarly in order to be known. And he added, “Except a greater use of words of Latin derivation, as was natural in an age when ladies received a learned education, a few words not now proper, a few conceits that were the fashion of the time, and there is the very same English in the women’s speeches in Shakespeare”. He quoted—
and the passage of Perdita’s cited before about the daffodils that—
and said that these were conclusive. But we have not, ourselves, heard young ladies converse in that manner.
Perhaps it is in his power of delineating women, that Shakespeare contrasts most strikingly with the greatest master of the art of dialogue in antiquity—we mean Plato. It will, no doubt, be said that the delineation of women did not fall within Plato’s plan; that men’s life was in that age so separate and predominant that it could be delineated by itself and apart; and no doubt these remarks are very true. But what led Plato to form that plan? What led him to select that peculiar argumentative aspect of life, in which the masculine element is in so high a degree superior? We believe that he did it because he felt that he could paint that kind of scene much better than he could paint any other. If a person will consider the sort of conversation that was held in the cool summer morning, when Socrates was knocked up early to talk definitions and philosophy with Protagoras, he will feel, not only that women would fancy such dialogues to be certainly stupid, and very possibly to be without meaning, but also that the side of character which is there presented is one from which not only the feminine but even the epicene element is nearly, if not perfectly, excluded. It is the intellect surveying and delineating intellectual characteristics. We have a dialogue of thinking faculties; the character of every man is delineated by showing us, not his mode of action or feeling, but his mode of thinking, alone and by itself. The pure mind, purged of all passion and affection, strives to view and describe others in like manner; and the singularity is, that the likenesses so taken are so good—that the accurate copying of the merely intellectual effects and indications of character gives so true and so firm an impression of the whole character,—that a daguerreotype of the mind should almost seem to be a delineation of the life. But though in the hand of a consummate artist, such a way of representation may in some sense succeed in the case of men, it would certainly seem sure to fail in the case of women. The mere intellect of a woman is a mere nothing. It originates nothing, it transmits nothing, it retains nothing; it has little life of its own, and therefore it can hardly be expected to attain any vigour. Of the lofty Platonic world of the ideas, which the soul in the old doctrine was to arrive at by pure and continuous reasoning, women were never expected to know anything. Plato (though Mr. Grote denies that he was a practical man) was much too practical for that; he reserved his teaching for people whose belief was regulated and induced in some measure by abstract investigations; who had an interest in the pure and (as it were) geometrical truth itself; who had an intellectual character (apart from and accessory to their other character) capable of being viewed as a large and substantial existence. Shakespeare’s being, like a woman’s, worked as a whole. He was capable of intellectual abstractedness, but commonly he was touched with the sense of earth. One thinks of him as firmly set on our coarse world of common clay, but from it he could paint the moving essence of thoughtful feeling—which is the best refinement of the best women. Imogen or Juliet would have thought little of the conversation of Gorgias.
On few subjects has more nonsense been written than on the learning of Shakespeare. In former times, the established tenet was, that he was acquainted with the entire range of the Greek and Latin classics, and familiarly resorted to Sophocles and Æschylus as guides and models. This creed reposed not so much on any painful or elaborate criticism of Shakespeare’s plays, as on one of the a priori assumptions permitted to the indolence of the wise old world. It was then considered clear, by all critics, that no one could write good English who could not also write bad Latin. Questioning scepticism has rejected this axiom, and refuted with contemptuous facility the slight attempt which had been made to verify this case of it from the evidence of the plays themselves. But the new school, not content with showing that Shakespeare was no formed or elaborate scholar, propounded the idea that he was quite ignorant, just as Mr. Croker “demonstrates” that Napoleon Bonaparte could scarcely write or read. The answer is, that Shakespeare wrote his plays, and that those plays show not only a very powerful, but also a very cultivated mind. A hard student Shakespeare was not, yet he was a happy and pleased reader of interesting books. He was a natural reader; when a book was dull he put it down, when it looked fascinating he took it up, and the consequence is, that he remembered and mastered what he read. Lively books, read with lively interest, leave strong and living recollections; the instructors, no doubt, say that they ought not to do so, and inculcate the necessity of dry reading. Yet the good sense of a busy public has practically discovered that what is read easily is recollected easily, and what is read with difficulty is remembered with more. It is certain that Shakespeare read the novels of his time, for he has founded on them the stories of his plays; he read Plutarch, for his words still live in the dialogue of the “proud Roman” plays; and it is remarkable that Montaigne is the only philosopher that Shakespeare can be proved to have read, because he deals more than any other philosopher with the first impressions of things which exist. On the other hand, it may be doubted if Shakespeare would have perused his commentators. Certainly, he would have never read a page of this review, and we go so far as to doubt whether he would have been pleased with the admirable discourses of M. Guizot, which we ourselves, though ardent admirers of his style and ideas, still find it a little difficult to read;—and what would he have thought of the following speculations of an anonymous individual, whose notes have been recently published in a fine octavo by Mr. Collier, and, according to the periodical essayists, “contribute valuable suggestions to the illustration of the immortal bard”?
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
“Act I. Scene I.
“P. 92. The reading of the subsequent line has hitherto been
but the manuscript corrector of the Folio, 1632, has changed it to
which seems more consistent with the course of the dialogue; for Proteus, remarking that Leander had been ‘more than over shoes in love, with Hero, Valentine answers, that Proteus was even more deeply in love than Leander. Proteus observes of the fable of Hero and Leander—
For instead of but was perhaps caught by the compositor from the preceding line.”
It is difficult to fancy Shakespeare perusing a volume of such annotations, though we allow that we admire them ourselves. As to the controversy on his school learning, we have only to say, that though the alleged imitations of the Greek tragedians are mere nonsense, yet there is clear evidence that Shakespeare received the ordinary grammar-school education of his time, and that he had derived from the pain and suffering of several years, not exactly an acquaintance with Greek or Latin, but, like Eton boys, a firm conviction that there are such languages.
Another controversy has been raised as to whether Shakespeare was religious. In the old editions it is commonly enough laid down that, when writing his plays, he had no desire to fill the Globe Theatre, but that his intentions were of the following description: “In this play, ‘Cymbeline,’ Shakespeare has strongly depicted the frailties of our nature, and the effect of vicious passions on the human mind. In the fate of the Queen we behold the adept in perfidy justly sacrificed by the arts she had, with unnatural ambition, prepared for others; and in reviewing her death and that of Cloten, we may easily call to mind the words of Scripture,” etc. And of “King Lear” it is observed with great confidence, that Shakespeare, “no doubt, intended to mark particularly the afflicting character of children’s ingratitude to their parents, and the conduct of Goneril and Regan to each other; especially in the former’s poisoning the latter, and laying hands on herself, we are taught that those who want gratitude towards their parents (who gave them their being, fed them, nurtured them to man’s estate) will not scruple to commit more barbarous crimes, and easily to forget that, by destroying their body, they destroy their soul also”. And Dr. Ulrici, a very learned and illegible writer, has discovered that in every one of his plays Shakespeare had in view the inculcation of the peculiar sentiments and doctrines of the Christian religion, and considers the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” to be a specimen of the lay or amateur sermon. This is what Dr. Ulrici thinks of Shakespeare; but what would Shakespeare have thought of Dr. Ulrici? We believe that “Via, goodman Dull,” is nearly the remark which the learned professor would have received from the poet to whom his very careful treatise is devoted. And yet, without prying into the Teutonic mysteries, a gentleman of missionary aptitudes might be tempted to remark that in many points Shakespeare is qualified to administer a rebuke to people of the prevalent religion. Meeting a certain religionist is like striking the corner of a wall. He is possessed of a firm and rigid persuasion that you must leave off this and that, stop, cry, be anxious, be advised, and, above all things, refrain from doing what you like, for nothing is so bad for any one as that. And in quite another quarter of the religious hemisphere, we occasionally encounter gentlemen who have most likely studied at the feet of Dr. Ulrici, or at least of an equivalent Gamaliel, and who, when we, or such as we, speaking the language of mortality, remark of a pleasing friend: “Nice fellow, so and so! Good fellow as ever lived!” reply sternly, upon an unsuspecting reviewer, with—“Sir, is he an earnest man?” To which, in some cases, we are unable to return a sufficient answer. Yet, Shakespeare, differing, in that respect at least, from the disciples of Carlyle, had, we suspect, an objection to grim people, and we fear would have liked the society of Mercutio better than that of a dreary divine, and preferred Ophelia or “that Juliet” to a female philanthropist of sinewy aspect. And, seriously, if this world is not all evil, he who has understood and painted it best must probably have some good. If the underlying and almighty essence of this world be good, then it is likely that the writer who most deeply approached to that essence will be himself good. There is a religion of week-days as well as of Sundays, of “cakes and ale”1 as well as of pews and altar cloths. This England lay before Shakespeare as it lies before us all, with its green fields, and its long hedgerows, and its many trees, and its great towns, and its endless hamlets, and its motley society, and its long history, and its bold exploits, and its gathering power, and he saw that they were good. To him, perhaps, more than to any one else, has it been given to see that they were a great unity, a great religious object; that if you could only descend to the inner life, to the deep things, to the secret principles of its noble vigour, to the essence of character, to what we know of Hamlet and seem to fancy of Ophelia, we might, so far as we are capable of so doing, understand the nature which God has made. Let us, then, think of him not as a teacher of dry dogmas, or a sayer of hard sayings, but as—
a teacher of the hearts of men and women; one from whom may be learned something of that inmost principle that ever modulates—
We must pause, lest our readers reject us, as the Bishop of Durham the poor curate, because he was “mystical and confused”.
Yet it must be allowed that Shakespeare was worldly, and the proof of it is, that he succeeded in the world. Possibly this is the point on which we are most richly indebted to tradition. We see generally indeed in Shakespeare’s works the popular author, the successful dramatist; there is a life and play in his writings rarely to be found, except in those who have had habitual good luck, and who, by the tact of experience, feel the minds of their readers at every word, as a good rider feels the mouth of his horse. But it would have been difficult quite to make out whether the profits so accruing had been profitably invested—whether the genius to create such illusions was accompanied with the care and judgment necessary to put out their proceeds properly in actual life. We could only have said that there was a general impression of entire calmness and equability in his principal works, rarely to be found where there is much pain, which usually makes gaps in the work, and dislocates the balance of the mind. But happily here, and here almost alone, we are on sure historical ground. The reverential nature of Englishmen has carefully preserved what they thought the great excellence of their poet—that he made a fortune.2 It is certain that Shakespeare was proprietor of the Globe Theatre—that he made money there, and invested the same in land at Stratford-on-Avon, and probably no circumstance in his life ever gave him so much pleasure. It was a great thing that he, the son of the wool-comber, the poacher, the good-for-nothing, the vagabond (for so we fear the phrase went in Shakespeare’s youth), should return upon the old scene a substantial man, a person of capital, a freeholder, a gentleman to be respected, and over whom even a burgess could not affect the least superiority. The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do. Why did Mr. Disraeli take the duties of the Exchequer with so much relish? Because people said he was a novelist, an ad captandum man, and—monstrum horrendum!—a Jew, that could not add up. No doubt it pleased his inmost soul to do the work of the red-tape people better than those who could do nothing else. And so with Shakespeare: it pleased him to be respected by those whom he had respected with boyish reverence, but who had rejected the imaginative man—on their own ground and in their own subject, by the only title which they would regard—in a word, as a moneyed man. We seem to see him eyeing the burgesses with good-humoured fellowship and genial (though suppressed and half-unconscious) contempt, drawing out their old stories, and acquiescing in their foolish notions, with everything in his head and easy sayings upon his tongue,—a full mind and a deep dark eye, that played upon an easy scene—now in fanciful solitude, now in cheerful society; now occupied with deep thoughts, now, and equally so, with trivial recreations, forgetting the dramatist in the man of substance, and the poet in the happy companion; beloved and even respected with a hope for every one and a smile for all.
About the close of the last century, some one discovered the wife of a country rector in the act of destroying, for culinary purposes, the last remnants of a box of sermons, which seemed to have been written by Joseph Butler. The lady was reproved, but the exculpatory rejoinder was, “Why, the box was full once, and I thought they were my husband’s”. Nevertheless, when we first saw the above announcement of unpublished remains, we hoped her exemplary diligence had not been wholly successful, and that some important writings of Butler had been discovered. In this we have been disappointed. The remains in question are slight and rather trivial; the longest is an additional letter addressed to Dr. Clarke; and in all the rest there is scarcely anything very characteristic, except the remark: “What a wonderful incongruity it is for a man to see the doubtfulness in which things are involved, and yet be impatient out of action or vehement in it. Say a man is a sceptic, and add what was said of Brutus, quicquid vult valde vult, and you say there is the greatest contrariety between his understanding and temper that can be expressed in words:”2 —an observation which might be borne in mind by some English writers who panegyrise Julius Cæsar, and the many French ones who panegyrise Napoleon.
The life of Butler is one of those in which the events are few, the transitions simple, and the final result strange. He was the son of a dissenting shopkeeper in Berkshire, was always of a meditative disposition and reading habit—grew to manhood—destined to the Dissenting ministry—began to question the principles of Dissent—entered at Oriel College—made valuable acquaintances there—rose in the Church by means of them—obtained, first the chaplaincy of the Rolls, then a decent living—then the rectory of Stanhope, the “golden” rectory, one of the best in the English Church—was recommended by his old friends to Queen Caroline—talked philosophy to her—pleased her (this being her favourite topic)—was made Bishop of Bristol, and thence translated to the richest of Anglican dignities—the prince-bishopric of Durham, and there died.
These are the single steps, and there is none of them which is remote from our ordinary observation. We should not be surprised to see any of them every day. But when we look on the life as a whole, when we see its nature, when we observe the son of a dissenting tradesman, a person of simple and pious disposition, of retiring habits, and scrupulous and investigating mind—in a word, the least worldly of ecclesiastics—attain to the most secular of ecclesiastical dignities, be a prince as well as a bishop, become the great magnate of the North or England, and dispense revenues to be envied by many a foreign potentate, we perceive the singularity of such a man with such beginnings attaining such a fortune. No man could guess from Butler’s writings that he ever had the disposing of five pounds: it is odd to think what he did with the mining property and landed property, the royalties and rectories, coal dues and curacies, that he must have heard of from morning till evening.
It is certainly most strange that such a man should ever have been made a bishop. In general we observe that those become most eminent in the sheep-fold, who partake most eminently of the qualities of the wolf. Nor is this surprising. The Church is (as the Article defines it) a congregation of men, faithful indeed, but faithful in various degrees. In every corporation or combination of men, no matter for what purpose collected, there are certain secular qualities which attain eminence as surely as oil rises above water. Attorneys are for the world, and the world is for attorneys. Activity, vigour, sharpsightedness, tact, boldness, watchfulness, and such qualities as these, raise a man in the Church as certainly as in the State; so long as there is wealth and preferment in the one they will be attained a good deal as wealth and office are in the other. The prowling faculties will have their way. Those who hunger and thirst after riches will have riches, and those who hunger not will not. Still to this there are exceptions, and Butler’s case is one of them. We might really fancy the world had determined to give for once an encouraging instance of its sensibility to rectitude, of the real and great influence of real and great virtue.
The period at which Butler’s elevation occurred certainly does not diminish the oddness of the phenomenon. We are not indeed of those, mostly disciples of Carlyle or Newman, who speak with untempered contempt of the eighteenth century. Rather, if we might trust our own feelings, we view it with appreciating regard. It was the age of substantial comfort. The grave and placid historian (we speak of Mr. Hallam), going learnedly over the generations of men, is disposed to think that there never was so much happiness before or since. Employment was plentiful; industry remunerative. The advantages of material civilisation were enjoyed, and its penalties scarcely foreseen. The troubles of the seventeenth century had died out; those of the nineteenth had not begun. Cares were few; the stir and conflict in which we live had barely commenced. It was not an age to trouble itself with prospective tasks; it had no feverish excitement, nor over-intellectual introspection; it lived on the fat of the land; quieta non movere, was its motto. Like most comfortable people, those of that time possessed a sleepy, supine sagacity, they had no fine imaginings, no exquisite fancies; but a coarse sense of what was common, a “large roundabout common-sense” (these are Locke’s words), which was their guide in what concerned them. Some may not think this romantic enough to be attractive, and yet it has a beauty of its own. They did not “look before or after,” nor “pine for what was not”;1 they enjoyed what was; a solid homeliness was their mark. Exactly as we like to see a large lazy animal lying in the placid shade, without anxiety for the future and chewing the cud of the past, we like to look back at the age of our great-grandfathers, so solid in its habits and placid in the lapse of years. Nevertheless—and this is what is to our purpose—we must own at once that the very merits of that age are of the earth, earthy; there was no talk then of “obstinate questionings,” or “incommunicable dream”;1 heroism, enthusiasm, the sense of the supernatural, deep feeling, seem in a manner foreign to the very idea of it. This is the point of view in which the Tractarian movement was described as “tending towards the realisation of something better and nobler than satisfied the last century”.2 For the clergy, the time was indeed evil. The popular view of the profession seems accurately expressed in a well-known book of memoirs. “But if this was your opinion, how came you not to let your friend Sherlock,” the well-known bishop, “into the secret? Why did you not tell him that half the pack, and those you most depended on, were drawn off, and the game escaped and safe, instead of leaving his lordship there to bark and yelp by himself, and make the silly figure he has done?” “Oh,” said Lord Carteret, “he talks like a parson, and consequently is so used to talk to people who do not mind him, that I left him to find it out at his leisure, and shall have him again for all this, whenever I want him.”3
The fact of Butler’s success is to be accounted for, as we have said, by his personal excellence. Mr. Talbot liked him, Bishop Talbot liked him, the Queen liked him, the King liked him. He says himself in these Remains, “Good men surely are not treated in this world as they deserve, yet ’tis seldom, very seldom, their goodness makes them disliked, even in cases where it may seem to be so; but ’tis some behaviour or other which, however excusable, perhaps infinitely overbalanced by their virtues, yet is offensive, possibly wrong, however such, it may be, as would pass off very well in a man of the world”.4 And he must have been alive to the fact in practice. He had every excuse for making virtue detestable. He was educated a Baptist, and brought up at a dissenting academy. He was born in the vulgarest years of English Puritanism, when it had fallen from its first estate, when it had least influence with the higher classes, when the revival which dates from John Wesley had not begun, and the very memory of gentlemen such as Hutchinson or Hampden had passed away. A certain instinctive refinement, a “niceness” and gentleness of nature, preserved him not only from the coarser consequences of his position, but even from that angularity of mind which is not often escaped by those early trained to object to what is established.
Of his character the principal point may be described in the words which Dr. Arnold so often uses to denote the end and aim of his education, “moral thoughtfulness”. A certain considerateness is, as it were, diffused over all his sentences. To most men conscience is an occasional, almost an external voice; to Butler it was a daily companion, a close anxiety. In a recent novel this disposition is skilfully delineated and delicately contrasted with its opposite. We may quote the passage, though it is encumbered with some detail. “But what was a real trouble to Charles,” this is the person whose character is in question, “it got clearer and clearer to his apprehension, that his intimacy with Sheffield was not quite what it had been. They had indeed passed the vacation together, and saw of each other more than ever; but their sympathies with each other were not as strong, they had not the same likings and dislikings; in short, they had not such congenial minds, as when they were freshmen. There was not so much heart in their conversations, and they more easily endured to miss each other’s company. They were both reading for honours, reading hard; but Sheffield’s whole heart was in his work, and religion was but a secondary matter with him. He had no doubts, difficulties, anxieties, sorrows, which much affected him. It was not the certainty of faith which made a sunshine in his soul, and dried up the mists of human weakness; rather he had no perceptible need within him of that vision of the unseen, which is the Christian’s life. He was unblemished in his character, exemplary in his conduct, but he was content with what the perishable world gave him. Charles’s characteristic, perhaps more than anything else, was an habitual sense of the Divine Presence—a sense which, of course, did not ensure uninterrupted conformity of thought and deed to itself, but still there it was: the pillar of the cloud before him and guiding him. He felt himself to be God’s creature, and responsible to Him; God’s possession, not his own.”1 Again the same character is brought home to us, in a part of Walton’s delineation of Hooker, which, indeed, except perhaps for the great quickness attributed to his intellect, might as a whole stand well enough for a description of Butler: “His complexion (if we may guess by him at the age of forty) was sanguine, with a mixture of choler; and yet his motion was slow even in his youth, and so was his speech, never expressing an earnestness in either of them, but an humble gravity suited to the aged. And it is observed (so far as inquiry is able to look back at this distance of time) that at his being a schoolboy he was an early questionist, quietly inquisitive why this was granted and that denied; this being mixed with a remarkable modesty and a sweet serene quietness of nature. . . . It is observable that he was never known to be . . . extreme in any of his desires; never heard to repine or dispute with Providence, but, by a quiet gentle submission and resignation of his will to the wisdom of the Creator, bore the burden of the day with patience; . . . and by this, and a grave behaviour, which is a divine charm, he begot an early reverence for his person even from those that, at other times and in other companies, took a liberty to cast off that strictness of behaviour and discourse that is required in a collegiate life.” Something of this is a result of disposition; yet on the whole it seems mainly the effect of the “moral thoughtfulness” which has been mentioned.
The very name of this quality reminds us of a difficulty. We cannot but doubt, with the experience of this age, how far this can be made, or ought to be made, the abiding sentiment of all men; how far such teaching as that of Arnold’s tends to introduce a too stiff and anxious habit of mind; how far the perpetual presence of a purpose will interfere with the simple happiness of life, and how far also it can be forced on the “lilies of the field”; how far the care of anxious minds and active thoughts is to be obtruded on the young, on the cheerful, on the natural. Other questions, too, might be asked, if the inculcation of this temper and habit as a daily, universal obligation, a perpetual and general necessity for all characters, would not, or might not, impair the sanguine energy and masculine activity which are necessary for social action; whether it does not, in matter of fact, even now, “burn and brand” into excitable fancies a few stern truths more deeply than a feeble reason will bear or the equilibrium of the world demands? But whatever be the issue of such questions, on which there is perhaps now no decided or established opinion, there can be no question of the charm of such a character in those to whom it is natural. We may admire what we cannot share; reverence what we do not imitate. As those who cannot comprehend a strain of soothing music, look with interest on those who can; as those who cannot feel the gentle glow of a quiet landscape, yet stand aside and seem inferior to those who do; so in character the buoyant and the bold, the harsh and the practical, may, at least for the moment, moralise and look upwards, reverence and do homage, when they come to a close experience of what is gentler and simpler, more anxious and more thoughtful, kinder and more religious than themselves. At any rate, so thought the contemporaries of Butler. They did, as a Frenchman would say, “their possible” for a good man; at least they made him a bishop.
We gather, however, that their kindness was scarcely successful. Butler was very prosperous; but it does not appear that he was at all happy. In the midst of the princely establishment of his rich episcopate, so anxious a nature found time to be rather melancholy. The responsibilities of so cumbrous a position were but little pleasant to an apprehensive disposition; wealth and honour were finery and foolishness to a quiet and shrinking man. A small room in a tranquil college, daily walks and thoughtful talk, a little income and a few friends—these, and these only, suit a still and meditative mind. Such, however, were denied him. He is said to have taken much pleasure in discussion and interchange of mind; but his life was passed in courts and country parsonages—the one too noisy, the last too still, to think or reason. Nor were there many people, whom we know of, that were congenial to him in that age. Scarcely any name of a friend of his has come down to us; one, indeed, there is—that of Bishop Secker, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, the author of a treatise on the Catechism, a serious work still used for the purposes of tuition, with which, indeed, the name of the writer is now with some so associated by early habit that it is difficult to fancy even Butler on equal social terms with him; the notion of talking to him seems like being asked to converse familiarly with the Catechism itself.
A not unremarkable circumstance, however, shows that Secker, though he was educated at the same academy, could not have been on any terms of extreme intimacy with Butler. Some time after Butler’s death, there was a rumour that he had died a Papist. There is no doubt, in fact, that Butler’s opinions, being formed on principles of evidence and reasoning too strict to be extremely popular, were not likely to be agreeable to those about him, and when an Englishman sees anything in religion which he does not like, he always, primâ facie, imputes it to the Pope. Besides this general and strong argument, there were two particular ones—first, that he had erected a cross in the Episcopal chapel at Bristol; secondly, that he was of a melancholy and somewhat of an ascetic turn; reasons which, though doubtless of force in their day and generation, are not likely to be of avail with us, who know so much more about crosses and fasting than they did then. We might have expected that Secker, as Butler’s old friend and schoolfellow, would have been able from his personal knowledge to throw a good deal of light upon the question. He was only, however, able to advance “presumptive arguments that Bishop Butler did not die a Papist,” which were no doubt valuable; but yet give no great idea of the intimacy between the writer and the person about whom he was writing. Such arguments may easily be found, and have always convinced every one that there was no truth in this rumour. The only reason for which we wish that Secker had been able to say he had heard Butler talk on the subject, and that he was no Papist, is, that we should then have known to whom Butler talked. There is nothing in Butler’s writings at all showing any leaning to the peculiar tenets of Roman Catholicism, and there is much which shows a strong opinion against them; and it was far too extreme a doctrine to be at all agreeable to his very English, moderate, and shrinking mind.
Calumny, however, is commonly instructive. It must be granted, that though there is no trace or tendency in the writings of Butler to the peculiar superstitions advocated by the Pope, there is a strong and prevailing tinge of what may be called the principle of superstition, that is, the religion of fear. Some may doubt, especially at the present day, whether there be any true religion of that kind at all; yet it seems, as Butler would have said, but a proper feeling “in such creatures as we are, in such a world as the present one”.1
We may reflect that there are too kinds of religion, which may for some purposes be called, the one the natural, and the other the supernatural. The former seems to take its rise from mere contemplation of external beauty. We look on the world, and we see that it is good. The Greek of former time, reclining softly in his own bright land, “looked up to the whole sky and declared that the One was God”. From the blue air and the fair cloud, the green earth and the white sea, a presence streams upon us. It modulates—
But the true home of the idea is in the starlight sky; we instinctively mingle it with an admiration of infinite space, a cold purity is around us, and the clear and steel-like words of the poet justly reflect the doctrine of the clear and steel-like heaven:—
And so on; and so it will be as long as there are poets to look upon the sky, or a sky to be looked at by them. The truth is, that there is a certain expressiveness (if we may so speak) in nature which persons of imagination naturally feel more acutely than others, and which cannot easily be in its full degree brought home to others, except in quotations of their writings, from which “smiling of the world,” as it has been called, more than from any other outward appearance, we infer the existence of an immaterial and animating spirit. This expressiveness perhaps produces its effect on the mind, by a principle analogous to, perhaps in a severe analysis identical with, the interpretative faculty by which we acquire a cognizance of the existence of other human minds. There appear to be certain natural signs and tokens from which we (like other animals) instinctively infer, or rather—for there is no conscious reasoning—in which we silently see, life and thought and mind. In this way we interpret the detail of natural expression—the smile, the glance of the eye, the common interjections, the universal tokens of our simplest emotions; those signs and marks and expressions which we make in our earliest infancy without teaching and by instinct, we appear also, by instinct and without learning, to read off, interpret, and comprehend, when used to us by others. The comprehension of this language is perhaps as much an instinct as the using of it. There is no occasion, however, for acute metaphysics; whatever was the origin of this faculty, such a power of interpreting material phenomena, such a faculty of seeing life, undoubtedly there is;—however we come by the power, we can distinguish living from dead creatures. At any rate, if, like other living creatures, we take a natural cognizance of the simple expressions of life and mind, and without tuition comprehend the language and meaning of natural signs, in like manner, though less clearly and forcibly, because our attention is so much less forcibly directed to them, do we interpret the significance of the beauty and the sublimity of outward nature. “In the mountains” do we “feel our faith”.1 We seem to know there is something behind. There is a perception of something—
The Greek mythology is one entire and unmixed embodiment of this religion of nature, as we may term it, this poetic interpretation of the spirit that speaks to us in the signs and symbols within us. Nor can any sensitive or imaginative mind scrutinise itself without being distinctly conscious of its teaching.
Now of the poetic religion there is nothing in Butler. No one could tell from his writings that the universe was beautiful. If the world were a Durham mine or an exact square, if no part of it were more expressive than a gravel-pit or a chalk-quarry, the teaching of Butler would be as true as it is now. A young poet, not a very wise one, once said, “he did not like the Bible, there was nothing about flowers in it”.1 He might have said so of Butler with great truth; a most ugly and stupid world one would fancy his books were written in. But in return and by way of compensation for this, there is a religion of another sort, a religion the source of which is within the mine, as the other’s was found to be in the world without; the religion to which we just now alluded as the religion (by an odd yet expressive way of speaking) of superstition. The source of this, as most persons are practically aware, is in the conscience. The moral principle (whatever may be said to the contrary by complacent thinkers) is really and to most men a principle of fear. The delights of a good conscience may be reserved for better things, but few men who know themselves will say that they have often felt them by vivid and actual experience. A sensation of shame, of reproach, of remorse, of sin (to use the word we instinctively shrink from because it expresses the meaning), is what the moral principle really and practically thrusts on most men. Conscience is the condemnation of ourselves. We expect a penalty. As the Greek proverb teaches, “where there is shame there is fear”; where there is the deep and intimate anxiety of guilt—the feeling which has driven murderers, and other than murderers, forth to wastes, and rocks, and stones, and tempests—we see, as it were, in a single complex and indivisible sensation, the pain and sense of guilt, and the painful anticipation of its punishment. How to be free from this, is the question. How to get loose from this—how to be rid of the secret tie which binds the strong man and cramps his pride, and makes him angry at the beauty of the universe—which will not let him go forth like a great animal, like the king of the forest, in the glory of his might, but restrains him with an inner fear and a secret foreboding, that if he do but exalt himself he shall be abased; if he do but set forth his own dignity, he will offend One who will deprive him of it. This, as has often been pointed out, is the source of the bloody rites of heathendom. You are going to battle, you are going out in the bright sun with dancing plumes and glittering spear; your shield shines, and your feathers wave, and your limbs are glad with the consciousness of strength, and your mind is warm with glory and renown,—with coming glory and unobtained renown,—for who are you, to hope for these—who are you, to go forth proudly against the pride of the sun, with your secret sin and your haunting shame, and your real fear? First lie down and abase yourself—strike your back with hard stripes—cut deep with a sharp knife as if you would eradicate the consciousness—cry aloud—put ashes on your head—bruise yourself with stones, then perhaps God may pardon you; or, better still—so runs the incoherent feeling—give Him something—your ox, your ass, whole hecatombs, if you are rich enough; anything, it is but a chance—you do not know what will please Him—at any rate, what you love best yourself—that is, most likely, your first-born son; then, after such gifts and such humiliation, He may be appeased, He may let you off—He may without anger let you go forth Achilles-like in the glory of your shield—He may not send you home as He would else, the victim of rout and treachery, with broken arms and foul limbs, in weariness and humiliation.
Of course, it is not this kind of fanaticism that we impute to a prelate of the English Church: human sacrifices are not respectable, and Achilles was not rector of Stanhope. But though the costume and circumstances of life change, the human heart does not; its feelings remain. The same anxiety, the same consciousness of personal sin, which led in barbarous times to what has been described, show themselves in civilised life as well. In this quieter period, their great manifestation is scrupulosity, a care about the ritual of life, an attention to meats and drinks, and cups and washings. Being so unworthy as we are, feeling what we feel, abased as we are abased, who shall say that these are beneath us? In ardent imaginative youth they may seem so, but let a few years come, let them dull the will or contract the heart, or stain the mind—then the consequent feeling will be, as all experience shows, not that a ritual is too mean, too low, too degrading for human nature, but that it is a mercy we have to do no more—that we have only to wash in Jordan—that we have not even to go out into the unknown distance to seek for Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus. We have no right to judge, we cannot decide, we must do what is laid down for us,—we fail daily even in this,—we must never cease for a moment in our scrupulous anxiety to omit by no tittle and to exceed by no iota. An accomplished divine of the present day has written a dissertation to show that this sort of piety is that expressed by the Greek word εὐλάβεια, “piety contemplated on the side on which it is a fear of God,” and which he derives from εὐλαμβάνεσθαι, “the image underlying the word being that of the careful taking hold, the cautious handling of some precious yet delicate vessel, which with ruder or less anxious handling might be broken,” and he subsequently adds: “The only three places in the New Testament in which εὐλαβὴς occurs are these: Luke ii. 25, Acts ii. 5, viii. 2. We have uniformly rendered it ‘devout,’ nor could this translation be bettered. It will be observed that on all these occasions it is used to express Jewish, and, as one might say, Old Testament piety. On the first it is applied to Simeon (δίκαιος καὶ εὐλαβὴς); on the second to those Jews who came from distant parts to keep the commanded feasts at Jerusalem; and on the third there can scarcely be a doubt that the ἄνδρες εὐλαβει̑ς who carry Stephen to his burial are not, as might at first sight appear, Christian brethren, but devout Jews, who showed by this courageous act of theirs, as by their great lamentation over the slaughtered saints, that they abhorred this deed of blood, that they separated themselves in spirit from it, and thus, if it might be, from all the judgments which it would bring down on the city of those murderers. Whether it was also further given them to believe on the Crucified who had such witnesses as Stephen, we are not told; we may well presume that it was. . . . If we keep in mind that in that mingled fear and love which together constitute the piety of man toward God, the Old Testament placed its emphasis on the fear, the New places it on the love (though there was love in the fear of God’s saints then, as there must be fear in their love now), it will at once be evident how fitly εὐλαβὴς was chosen to set forth their piety under the old covenant, who, like Zacharias and Elizabeth, were righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless, and leaving nothing willingly undone which pertained to the circle of their prescribed duties. For this sense of accurately and scrupulously performing that which is prescribed with the consciousness of the danger of slipping into a negligent performance of God’s service, and of the need therefore of anxiously watching against the adding to or diminishing from, or in any other way altering, that which is commanded, lies ever in the words εὐλαβὴς, εὐλάβεια, when used in their religious signification. Plutarch, in more than one instructive passage, exalts the εὐλάβεια of the old Romans in divine matters, as contrasted with the comparative carelessness of the Greeks. Thus, in his ‘Coriolanus,’ after other instances in proof, he goes on to say, ‘Of late times also they did renew and begin a sacrifice thirty times one after another, because they thought still there fell out one fault or another in the same; so holy and devout were they to the gods’ (τοιαύτη μὲν εὐλάβεια πρὸς τὸ θει̑ον ‘Ρωμαίων). Elsewhere he portrays Æmilius Paulus as eminent for his εὐλάβεια. The passage is long, and I will only quote a portion of it, availing myself again of old Sir Thomas North’s translation, which, though somewhat loose, is in essentials correct: ‘When he did anything belonging to his office of priesthood, he did it with great experience, judgment, and diligence; leaving all other thoughts, and without omitting any ancient ceremony or adding any new; contending oftentimes with his companions in things which seemed light and of small moment; declaring to them that, though we do presume the gods are easy to be pacified and that they readily pardon all faults and scapes committed by negligence, yet if it were no more but for respect of the Commonwealth’s sake, they should not slightly or carelessly dissemble or pass over faults committed in those matters’.”1
This is the view suggested by what Butler has happily called the “presages of conscience,” by the “natural fear and apprehension” of punishment, “which restrains from crimes and is a declaration of Nature against them”. The great difficulty of religious philosophy is, to explain how we know that these two Beings are the same—from what course and principle of reasoning it is that we acquire our knowledge that the curiosus Deus, the watchful Deity, who is ever in our secret hearts, who seeks us out in the fairest scenes, who is apt to terrify our hearts, whose very eyes seem to shine through Nature, is the same Being that animates the universe with its beauty and its light, smoothes the heaviness from our brow and the weight from our hearts, pervades the floating cloud and buoyant air,—
—gives hints of joy and hope. This seems the natural dualism—the singular contrast of the God of imagination and the God of conscience, the God of beauty and the God of fear. How do we know that the Being who refreshes is the same as He who imposes the toil, that the God of anxiety is the same as the God of help, that the intensely personal Deity of the inward heart is the same as the almost neutral spirit of external nature, which seems a thing more than a person, a light and impalpable vapour just beautifying the universe and no more?
If we are to offer a suggestion, as we have stated a difficulty, we should hold that the only way of obviating or explaining the contrast, which is so perplexing to susceptible minds, is by recurring to the same primary assumption which is required to satisfy our belief in God’s infinity, omnipotence, or veracity. We cannot prove in any way that God is infinite any more than that space is infinite; nor that God is omnipotent, since we do not know what powers there are in Nature—that He is perfectly true, for we have had no experience or communication with Him, in which His veracity could be tested. We assume these propositions, and treat them, moreover, not as hypothetical assumptions or provisional theories to be discarded if new facts should be discovered, and to be rejected if more elaborate research should require it, but as positive and clear certainties, on which we must ever act, and to which we must reduce and square all new information that may be brought home to us. In these respects we assume that God is perfect, and it is only necessary for the solution of our difficulty to assume that He is perfect in all. We have in both cases the same amount and description of evidence, the same inward consciousness, the same speaking and urging voice, requiring us to believe. In every step of religious argument we require the assumption, the belief, the faith if the word is better, in an absolutely perfect Being—in and by whom we are, who is omnipotent as well as most holy, who moves on the face of the whole world and ruleth all things by the word of His power. If we grant this, the difficulty of the opposition between what we have called the natural and the supernatural religion is removed; and without granting it, that difficulty is perhaps insuperable. It follows from the very idea and definition of an infinitely-perfect Being, that He is within us, as well as without us—ruling the clouds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, as well as the fears and thoughts of man—smiling through the smile of Nature, as well as warning with the pain of conscience, “Sine qualitate bonum; sine quantitate magnum; sine indigentiâ creatorem; sine situ præsidentem; sine habitu omnia continentem; sine loco ubique totum; sine tempore sempiternum; sine ullâ sui mutatione mutabilia facientem, nihilque patientem”.1 If we assume this, life is simple; without this all is dark.
The religion of the imagination is, in its consequences upon the character, free and poetical. No one need trouble himself to set about its defence. Its agreeability sufficiently defends it and its congeniality to a refined and literary age. The religion of the conscience will seem to many of the present day selfish and morbid. And doubtless it may become so if it be allowed to eat into the fibre of the character, and to supersede the manliness by which it should be supported. The whole of religion, of course, is not of this sort, and it is one which only very imperfect beings can have a share in. But so long as men are very imperfect, the sense of great imperfection should cleave to them, and while the consciousness of sin is on the mind, the consequent apprehension of deserved punishment seems in its proper degree to be a reasonable service. However, any more of this discussion is scarcely to our purpose. No attentive reader of Butler’s writings will hesitate to say that he, at all events, was an example of the “anxious and scrupulous worshipper, who makes a conscience of changing anything, of omitting anything, being in all things fearful to offend,”1 and most likely it was from this habit and characteristic of his mind, that he obtained the unenviable reputation of living and dying a Papist.
Of Butler’s personal habits nothing in the way of detail has descended to us. He was never married, and there is no evidence of his ever having spoken to any lady save Queen Caroline. We hear, however, for certain that he was commonly present at her Majesty’s philosophical parties, at which all questions religious and moral, speculative and practical, were discussed with a freedom that would astonish the present generation. Less intellectual unbelief existed probably at that time than there is now, but there was an infinitely freer expression of what did exist. The French Revolution frightened the English people. The awful calamities and horrors of that period were thought to be, as in part they were, the results and consequences of the irreligious opinions which just before prevailed. Scepticism became what in the days of Lord Hervey it was not, an ungentlemanly state of mind. At no meeting of the higher classes, certainly at none where ladies are present, is there a tenth part of the plain questioning and bonâ fide discussion of primary Christian topics, that there was at the select suppers of Queen Caroline. The effect of these may be seen in many passages, and even in the whole tendency, of Butler’s writings. No great Christian writer, perhaps, is so exclusively occupied with elementary topics and philosophical reasonings. His mind is ever directed towards the first principles of belief, and doubtless this was because, more than any other, he lived with men who plainly and clearly denied them. His frequent allusions to the difficulties of such discussions are likewise suggestive of a familiar personal experience. The whole list of directions which he gives the clergy of Durham on religious argument shows a daily familiarity with sceptical men. “It is come,” he says, “I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be false. And accordingly they treat it as if this were an agreed point among all people of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.” No one would so describe the tone of talk now, nor would there be an equal reason for remembering Butler’s general caution against rashly entering the lists with the questioners. Among gentlemen a clergyman has scarcely the chance. “Then, again, the general evidence of religion is complex and various. It consists of a long series of things: one preparatory to and confirming another from the beginning of the world till the present time, and it is easy to see how impossible it must be in a cursory conversation to unite all this into one argument, and represent it as it ought; and, could it be done, how utterly indisposed would people be to attend to it. I say, in cursory conversation; whereas unconnected objections are thrown out in few words, and are easily apprehended without more attention than is usual in common talk, so that, notwithstanding we have the best cause in the world, and though a man were very capable of defending it, yet I know not why he should be forward to undertake it upon so great a disadvantage and to so little good effect, as it must be amid the gaiety and carelessness of common conversation.” It is not likely from these remarks that Butler had much pleasure at the Queen’s talking parties.
What his pleasures were, indeed, does not very distinctly appear. In reading we doubt if he took any keen interest. A voracious reader is apt, when he comes to write, to exhibit his reading in casual references and careless innuendoes, which run out insensibly from the fulness of his literary memory. But of this in Butler there is nothing. His writings contain little save a bare and often not a very plain statement of the necessary argument; you cannot perhaps find a purely literary allusion in his writings; none, at all events, which shows he had any favourite books, whose topics were ever present to his mind, and whose well-known words might be a constant resource in moments of weariness and melancholy. There is, too, a philippic in the well-known “Preface” against vague and thoughtless reading, which seems as if he felt the evil consequences more than the agreeableness of that sin. Some men find a compensation in the excitement of writing, for all other evils and exclusions; but it is probable that, if Butler hated anything, he hated his pen. Composition is pleasant work for men of ready words, fine ears, and thick-coming illustrations. Wit and eloquence please the writer as much as the reader. There is even some pleasantness in feeling that you have given a precise statement of a strong argument. But Butler, so far from having the pleasures of eloquence, had not even the comfort of perspicuity. He never could feel that he had made an argument tell by his way of wording it; it tells in his writings, if it tells at all, by its own native and inherent force. In some places the mode of statement is even stupid; it seems selected to occasion a difficulty. You often see that writers—Gibbon, for instance—believe that their words are good to eat, as well as to read; they had plainly a pleasure in rolling them about in the mouth like sugar-plums, and gradually smoothing off any knots or excrescences; but there is nothing of this in Butler.
The circumstance of so great a thinker being such a poor writer is not only curious in itself, but indicates the class of thinkers to which Butler belongs. Philosophers may be divided into seers on the one hand, and into gropers on the other. Plato, to use a contrast which is often used for other purposes, is the type of the first. On all subjects he seems to have before him a landscape of thought, with clear outline, and pure air, keen rocks and shining leaves, an Attic sky and crystal-flowing river, each detail of which was as present, as distinct, as familiar to his mind as the view from the Acropolis, or the Road to Decelea. As were his conceptions so is his style. What Protagoras said and Socrates replied, what Thrasymachus and Polemo, what Gorgias and Callicles, all comes out in distinct sequence and accurate expression; each feature is engraved on the paper; an exact beauty is in every line. What a contrast is the style of Aristotle! He sees nothing—he is like a man groping in the dark about a room which he knows. He hesitates and suggests; proposes first one formula and then another; rejects both, gives a multitude of reasons, and ends at last with an expression which he admits to be incorrect and an apologetic “let it make no difference”. There are whole passages in his writings—the discussion about Solon and happiness in the Ethics, is an instance—in which he appears like a schoolboy who knows the answer to a sum, but cannot get the figures to come to it.
This awkward and hesitating manner is likewise that of Butler. He seems to have an obscure feeling, an undefined perception, of what the truth is; but his manipulation of words and images is not apt enough to bring it out. Like the miser in the story, he has a shilling about him somewhere, if people will only give him time and solitude to make research for it. As a person hunting for a word or name he has forgotten, he knows what it is, only he cannot say it. The fault is one characteristic of a strong and sound mind wanting in imagination. The visual faculty is deficient. The soundness of such men’s understanding ensures a correct report of what comes before them, and its strength is shown in vigorous observations upon it; but they are unable to bring those remarks out, the delineative power is wanting, they have no picture of the particulars in their minds; no instance or illustration occurs to them. Popular, in the large sense of the term, such writers can never be. Influential they may often become. The learned have time for difficulties; the critical mind is pleased with crooked constructions; the detective intellect likes the research for lurking and half-hidden truth. In this way portions of Aristotle have been noted these thousand years, as Chinese puzzles; and without detracting for a moment from Butler’s real merit, it may be allowed that some of his influence, especially that which he enjoys in the English universities, is partially due to that obscurity of style, which renders his writings such apt exercises for the critical intellect, which makes the truth when found seem more valuable from the difficulty of finding it, and gives scope for an able lecturer to elucidate, annotate, and expound.
The fame of Butler rests mainly on two remarkable courses of reasoning, one of which is contained in the well-known Sermons, the second in the Analogy. Both seem to be in a great measure suggested by the circumstances and topics of the time. There was a certain naturalness in Butler’s mind, which took him straight to the questions on which men differed around him. Generally it is safer to prove what no one denies, and easier to explain difficulties which no one has ever felt. A quiet reputation is best obtained in the literary quæstiunculæ of important subjects. But a simple and straightforward man studies great topics because he feels a want of the knowledge which they contain; and if he has ascertained an apparent solution of any difficulty, he is anxious to impart it to others. He goes straight to the real doubts and fundamental discrepancies; to those on which it is easy to excite odium, and difficult to give satisfaction; he leaves to others the amusing skirmishing and superficial literature accessory to such studies. Thus there is nothing light in Butler; all is grave, serious and essential; nothing else would be characteristic of him.
The Sermons of Butler are primarily intended as an answer to that recurring topic of ethical discussion, the Utilitarian Philosophy. He is occasionally spoken of by enthusiastic disciples as having uprooted this for ever. But this is hardly so. The selfish system still lives and flourishes. Nor must any writer on the fundamental differences of human opinion propose to himself such an aim. The source of the great heresies of belief lies in their congeniality to certain types of character frequent in the world, and liable to be reproduced by inevitable and recurring circumstances. We do not mean that the variations of creeds are the native and essential variances of the minds which believe them, for this would render truth a matter of personal character, and make general discussion impossible. We believe that all minds are originally so constituted as to be able to acquire right opinions on all subjects of the first importance to them; but, nevertheless, that the native bent of their character instinctively inclines them to particular views; that one man is naturally prone to one error, and another to its opposite; that this is increased by circumstances, and becomes for practical purposes invincible, unless it be met on the part of every man by early and vigorous resistance. The Epicurean philosophy is an example of these recurring and primary errors, inasmuch as it is congenial to clear, vigorous and hasty minds, which have no great depth of feeling, and no searching introspection of thought, which prefer a ready solution to an accurate, an easy to an elaborate, a simple to a profound. Draw a slight worldliness—and the events of life will draw it—over such a mind, and you have the best Epicurean. There is a use, however, in discussing topics like these. Nothing would be more perverse than to abstain from proving certain truths, because some men were naturally prone to the opposite errors; rather, on the contrary, should we din them into the ears, and thrust them upon the attention, of mankind; go out into the highways and hedges, and leave as few as possible for invincible ignorance to mislead or to excuse. It is much in every generation to state the ancient truth in the manner which that generation requires; to state the old answer to the old difficulty; to transmit, if not discover; convince, if not invent; to translate into the language of the living, the truths first discovered by the dead. This defence, though suggested by the subject, is not, however, required by Butler. He may claim the higher praise of having explained his subject in a manner essentially more satisfactory than his predecessors.
We are not concerned to follow Butler into the entire range of this ancient and well-discussed topic. We are only called on to make, and we shall only make, two or three remarks on the position which he occupies with respect to it. His grand merit was the simple but important one of having given a less complex and more graphic description of the facts of human consciousness than any one had done before. Before his time the Utilitarians had the advantage of appearing to be the only people who talked about real life and human transactions. The doctrines avowed by their opponents were cloudy, lofty, and impalpable. Platonic philosophy in its simple form is utterly inexplicable to the English mind. A plain man will not soon succeed in making anything of an archetypal idea. If an ordinary sensible Englishman takes up even such a book as Cudworth’s Immutable Morality, it is nearly inevitable that he should put it down as mystical fancy. True as a considerable portion of the conclusions of that treatise are or may be, nevertheless the truth is commonly so put as to puzzle an Englishman, and the error so as particularly to offend him. We may open at random. “Wherefore,” says Cudworth, “the result of all that we have hitherto said is this, that the intelligible natures and essences of things are neither arbitrary nor fantastical, that is, neither alterable by any will or opinion; and therefore everything is necessarily and immutably to science and knowledge what it is, whether absolutely, or relatively to all minds and intellects in the world. So that if moral good and evil, just and unjust, signify any reality, either absolute or relative, in the things so denominated, as they must have some certain natures, which are the actions or souls of men, they are neither alterable by will or opinion. Upon which ground that wise philosopher, Plato, in his Minos, determined that Νόμος, a law, is not δόγμα πόλεως, any arbitrary decree of a city or supreme governors; because there may be unjust decrees, which, therefore, are no laws, but the invention of that which is, or what is absolutely or immutably just in its own nature; though it be very true also that the arbitrary constitutions of those that have the lawful authority of commanding when they are not materially unjust, are laws also in a secondary sense, by virtue of that natural and immutable justice or law that requires political order to be observed. But I have not taken all this pains only to confute scepticism or fantasticism, or merely to defend or corroborate our argument for the immutable nature of the just and unjust; but also for some other weighty purposes that are very much conducing to the business we have in hand. And first of all, that the soul is not a mere tabula rasa, a naked and passive thing, which has no innate furniture or activity of its own, nor anything at all in it but what was impressed on it from without; for if it were so, then there could not possibly be any such thing as moral good and evil, just and unjust, forasmuch as these differences do not arise merely from outward objects or from the impresses which they made upon us by sense, there being no such thing in them, in which sense it is truly affirmed by the author of the Leviathan:1 ‘That there is no common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves,’ that is, either considered absolutely in themselves, or relatively to external sense only, but according to some other interior analogy which things have to a certain inward determination in the soul itself from whence the foundation of all this difference must needs arise, as I shall show afterwards; not that the anticipations of morality spiring merely from intellectual forms and notional ideas of the mind or from certain rules or propositions printed on the ‘soul as on a book,’ but from some other more inward and vital principle in intellectual beings, as such, whereby they have a natural determination in them to do certain things, and to avoid others, which could not be, if they were mere naked, passive things.”
It is instructive to compare Butler’s way of stating a doctrine substantially similar:—
“Mankind has various instincts and principles of action, as brute creatures have; some leading most directly and immediately to the good of the community, and some most directly to private good.
“Man has several which brutes have not; particularly reflection or conscience, an approbation of some principles or actions, and disapprobation of others.
“Brutes obey their instincts or principles of action, according to certain rules; suppose the constitution of their body, and the objects around them.
“The generality of mankind also obey their instincts and principles, all of them; those propensions we call good, as well as the bad, according to the same rules, namely, the constitution of their body, and the external circumstances which they are in.
“Brutes in acting according to the rules before mentioned, their bodily constitution and circumstances, act suitably to their whole nature.
“Mankind also, in acting thus, would act suitably to their whole nature, if no more were to be said of man’s nature than what has been now said; if that, as it is a true, were also a complete, adequate account of our nature.
“But that is not a complete account of man’s nature. Somewhat further must be brought in to give us an adequate notion of it, namely, that one of those principles of action, conscience, or reflection, compared with the rest, as they all stand together in the nature of man, plainly bears upon it marks of authority over all the rest, and claims the absolute direction of them all, to allow or forbid their gratification; a disapprobation of reflection being in itself a principle manifestly superior to a mere propension. And the conclusion is, that to allow no more to this superior principle or part of our nature, than to other parts; to let it govern and guide only occasionally in common with the rest, as its turn happens to come, from the temper and circumstances one happens to be in,—this is not to act conformably to the constitution of man. Neither can any human creature be said to act conformably to his constitution of nature, unless he allows to that superior principle the absolute authority which is due to it. And this conclusion is abundantly confirmed from hence, that one may determine what course of action the economy of man’s nature requires, without so much as knowing in what degrees of strength the several principles prevail, or which of them have actually the greatest influence.
“The practical reason of insisting so much upon this natural authority of the principle of reflection or conscience is, that it seems in a great measure overlooked by many, who are by no means the worst sort of men. It is thought sufficient to abstain from gross wickedness, and to be humane and kind to such as happen to come in their way. Whereas, in reality, the very constitution of our nature requires that we bring our whole conduct before this superior faculty; wait its determination; enforce upon ourselves its authority; and make it the business of our lives, as it is absolutely the whole business of a moral agent, to conform ourselves to it. This is the true meaning of that ancient precept, Reverence thyself.”1
We do not mean that Cudworth’s style is not as good, or better, than the style of Butler; but that the language and illustrations of the latter belong to the same world as that we live in, have a relation to practice, and recall sentiments we remember to have felt and sensations which are familiar to us, while those of Cudworth, on the contrary, seem difficult, and are strange in the ears of the common people.
We do not need to go more deeply into the discussion of Butler’s doctrine, for it is familiar to our readers. If there is any incorrectness in the delineation which he has given of conscience, it is in the passages in which he speaks, or seems to speak, of it more as an animating or suggesting, than as a criticising or regulative faculty. The error of this representation has been repeatedly pointed out and illustrated in these pages.1 It is probable, indeed, that Butler’s attention has scarcely been directed with sufficient precision to this portion of the subject. It follows easily, from his favourite principles, that when two impulses—say benevolence and self-love—contend for mastery in the mind, and conscience pronounces that one is a higher and better motive of action than the other, the office of conscience is judicial, and not impulsive. Conscience gives its opinion, and the will obeys or disobeys at its pleasure; the impelling spring of action is the selected impulse on which the will finally decides to act. At the same time, it must be admitted that there are cases when, for practical purposes, conscience is an impelling and goading faculty. We mean when it is opposed by indolence. There is a heavy lassitude of the will, which is certainly spurred, sometimes effectually, and sometimes in vain, by our conscience. Possibly the correct language may be, that in such cases the desire of ease is opposed by the desire of doing our duty; and that in this case also the office of conscience is simply to say, that the latter is higher than the former. To us it seems, however, if we may trust our consciousness on points of such exact nicety, that it is more graphically true to speak of the sluggishness of the will being goaded and stimulated by the activity of conscience. There is a native inertness in the voluntary faculty which will not come forth unless great occasion is shown it. At any rate, something like this was perhaps the meaning of Butler, and he, no doubt, would have included in the term conscience the desire to do our duty as such, and because it is such.
Butler has been claimed by Mr. Austin, in his Province of Jurisprudence (and sometimes since by other writers), as a supporter of the compound Utilitarian scheme, as it has been called, which regards the promotion of general happiness as the single inherent characteristic of virtuous actions, and considers the conscience as a special instinct for directing men in determining what actions are for the general interest and what are not. This theory is, of course, distinct from the common Epicurean scheme, which either denies, like Bentham, the fact of a conscience in limine, or, like Mill, professes to explain it away as an effect of illusion and association. The “Composite theory,” on the other hand, distinctly admits the existence and obligatory authority of conscience, but regards it as a ready, expeditious, and, so to say, telegraphic mode of arriving at results which could otherwise be reached only by toilsome and dubious discussions of general utility. In our judgment, however, the writings of Butler hardly warrant an authoritative ascription to him of this philosophy. He doubtless held that the promotion of general happiness, taking all time and all the world into a complete account, is one characteristic and ascertainable property of virtue; but there is nothing to show that he thought it was the only one. On the contrary, we think we could show, with some plausibility, from several passages, that, in his judgment, virtuous actions had besides several essential and appropriate qualities. He was, at all events, the last man to deny that they might have; and his whole reasoning on the subject of moral probation seems to imply that, inasmuch as such a state is, according to every appearance, not at all the readiest or surest means of promoting satisfaction or enjoyment, it cannot have been selected for the cultivation of either satisfaction or enjoyment. It is one thing to hold that, the nature of man being what it is, a virtuous life is the happiest as well as best; and another, that such a life is the best because it is the happiest, and that the nature of man was created in the manner it is in order to produce such happiness. The first is, of course, the doctrine of Butler; the second there does not seem any certain ground for imputing to him.
The religious side of morals is rather indicated and implied, than elaborated or worked out by Butler. Yet, as we formerly said, a constant reference to the “presages of conscience” pervades his writings. Although he has nowhere drawn out the course of reasoning fully, or step by step, it is certain that he relied on the moral evidence for a moral Providence; not, indeed, with foolhardy assurance, but with the cautious confidence which was habitual to him. The ideas which are implied in the term justice—the connection between virtue and reward—sin and punishment—a sacred law and holy Ruler, were plainly the trains of reflection most commonly present to his mind.
Persons who give credence to an intuitive conscience are so often taunted with the variations and mutability of human nature, that it is worth noticing how complete is the coincidence, in essential points of feeling, between minds so different as Butler, Kant, and Plato. We can scarcely imagine among thoughtful men a greater diversity of times and characters. The great Athenian in his flowing robes daily conversing in captious Athens—the quiet rector wandering in Durham coalfields—the smoking professor in ungainly Königsberg, would, if the contrast were not too great for art, form a trio worthy of a picture. The whole series of truths and reasonings which we have called the supernatural religion, or that of conscience, is, however, as familiar to one as to the other, and is the most important, if not the most conspicuous, feature in the doctrinal teaching of all three. The very great differences of nomenclature and statement, the entire contrast in the style of expression, do but heighten the wonder of the essential and interior correspondence. The doctrine has certainly shown its capability of co-existing with several forms of civilisation; and at least the simplest explanation of its diffusion is by supposing that it has a real warrant in the nature and consciousness of man.
Such is the doctrine of the Sermons; the argument of the Analogy is of a different and more complicated kind; and, from its refinement, requires to be stated with care and precaution. As the Sermons are in a great measure a reply to the caricaturists of Locke, the Analogy is, in reality, designed as a confutation of Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke. It was the object of those writers, as of others since, to disprove the authority of the Christian and Jewish revelation, by showing that they enjoined on man conduct forbidden by the law of Nature, and likewise imputed to the Deity actions of an evil tendency and degrading character. These writers are commonly, and perhaps best, met by a clear denial of the fact; by showing in detail, that Christianity is really open to no such objections, contains no such precepts, and imputes no such actions: the reply of Butler is much more refined and peculiar.
The argument has been thus expounded, and its supposed bearing explained by Professor Rogers in the notice of Butler,—the title of which we have ventured to affix to this Article:—
“Further; we cannot but think that the conclusiveness of Butler’s work as against its true object, ‘the Deist,’ has often been underrated by many even of its genuine admirers. Thus, Dr. Chalmers, for instance, who gives such glowing proofs of his admiration of the work, and expatiates in a congenial spirit on its merits, affirms that ‘those overrate the power of analogy who look to it for any very distinct or positive contribution to the Christian argument. To repel objections, in fact, is the great service which analogy has rendered to the cause of Revelation, and it is the only service which we seek for at its hands.’ This, abstractedly, is true; but, in fact, considering the position of the bulk of the objectors, that they have been invincibly persuaded of the truth of theism, and that their objections to Christianity have been exclusively or chiefly of the kind dealt with in the Analogy, the work is much more than an argumentum ad hominem—it is not simply of negative value. To such objectors it logically establishes the truth of Christianity, or it forces them to recede from theism, which the bulk will not do. If a man says, ‘I am invincibly persuaded of the truth of proposition A, but I cannot receive proposition B, because objections α, β, γ are opposed to it; if these were removed, my objections would cease’; then, if you can show that α, β, γ equally apply to the proposition A, his reception of which, he says, is based on invincible evidence, you do really compel such a man to believe that not only B may be true, but that it is true, unless he be willing (which few in the parallel case are) to abandon proposition A as well as B. This is precisely the condition in which the majority of Deists have ever been, if we may judge from their writings. It is usually the a priori assumption, that certain facts in the history of the Bible, or some portions of its doctrine, are unworthy of the Deity, and incompatible with his character or administration, that has chiefly excited the incredulity of the Deist; far more than any dissatisfaction with the positive evidence which substantiates the Divine origin of Christianity. Neutralise these objections by showing that they are equally applicable to what he declares he cannot relinquish—the doctrines of theism; and you show him, if he has a particle of logical sagacity, not only that Christianity may be true, but that it is so; and his only escape is by relapsing into atheism, or resting his opposition on other objections of a very feeble character in comparison, and which, probably, few would ever have been contented with alone; for, apart from those objections which Butler repels, the historical evidence for Christianity—the evidence on behalf of the integrity of its records and the honesty and sincerity of its founders—showing that they could not have constructed such a system if they would, and would not, supposing them impostors, if they could—is stronger than that for any fact in history.
“In consequence of this position of the argument, Butler’s book, to large classes of objectors, though practically an argumentum ad hominem, not only proves Christianity may be true, but in all logical fairness proves it is so. This he himself, with his usual judgment, points out. He says: ‘And objections which are equally applicable to both natural and revealed religion are, properly speaking, answered by its being shown that they are so, provided the former be admitted to be true’.”
No one can deny the ingenuity of this line of reasoning, but we can only account for the great assent which it has received, by supposing that the goodness of the cause for which it is commonly brought forward has not unnaturally led to an undue approbation of the argument itself. From the amount of authority in its favour we feel some diffidence, but otherwise we should have said, without hesitation, that it was open to several objections.
In the first place, so far from its being probable that Revelation would have contained the same difficulties as Nature, we should have expected that it would explain those difficulties. The very term Supernatural Revelation implies that previously and by nature man is, to a great extent, in ignorance; that particularly he is unaware of some fact, or series of facts, which God deems it fit that he should know. The instinctive presumption certainly is, that those facts would be most important to us. No doubt it is possible that, for incomprehensible reasons, a special revelation should be made of facts purely indifferent, of the date when London was founded, or the precise circumstances of the invasion by William the Conqueror. But this is in the highest degree improbable. What seems likely (and the whole argument is essentially one of likelihood), according to our mind, is that the Revelation which God would vouchsafe to us would be one affecting our daily life and welfare, would communicate truths either on the one hand conducing to our temporal happiness in the present world, or removing the many doubts and difficulties which surround the general plan of Providence, the entire universe, and our particular destiny. These are the two classes of truths on which we seem to require help, and it is in the first instance more probable that assistance would be given us on those points on which it is most required.
The argument of Butler, of course, relates to our religious difficulties. And it seems impossible to deny that this is the exact class of difficulty which it is most likely a revelation, if given, would explain. No one who reasons on this subject is likely to doubt that the natural faculties of man are more clearly adequate to our daily and temporal happiness, than to the explanation of the perplexities which have confounded men since the beginning of speculation—of which the mere statement is so vast—which relate to the scheme of the universe and the plan of God. This is the one principle on which the most extreme sceptics, and the most thorough advocates of revelation, meet and agree. The sceptic says, “Man is not born to resolve the mystery of the universe; but he must nevertheless attempt it, that he may keep within the limits of the knowable”: which really means that he is to fold his hands and be quiet; to abstain from all religious inquiry; to confine himself to this life, and be industrious and practical within its limits. The advocate of revelation is for ever denying the competency of man’s faculties to explain, or puzzle out, what in the large sense most concerns him. There are difficulties celestial, and difficulties terrestrial; but it is certainly more likely that God would interfere miraculously to explain the first than to remove the second.
Let us look at the argument more at length. The supposition and idea of a “miraculous revelation” rest on the ignorance of man. The scene of Nature is stretched out before him; it has rich imagery, and varied colours, and infinite extent; its powers move with a vast sweep; its results are executed with exact precision; it gladdens the eyes, and enriches the imagination; it tells us something of God—something important, yet not enough. For example, difficulties abound; poverty and sin, pain and sorrow, fear and anger, press on us with a heavy weight. On every side our knowledge is confined, and our means of enlarging it small. Of this the outer world takes no heed; Nature is “unfeeling”; her laws roll on; “beautiful and dumb,” she passes forward and vouchsafes no sign. Indeed, she seems to hide, as one might fancy, the dark mysteries of life which seem to lie beneath; our feeble eyes strain to look forward, but her “painted veil” hangs over all, like an October mist upon the morning hills. Here, as it seems, revelation intervenes; God will break the spell that is upon us; will meet our need; will break, as it were, through the veil of Nature; He will show us of Himself. It is not likely, surely, that He will break the everlasting silence to no end; that, having begun to speak, He will tell us nothing; that He will leave the difficulties of life where He found them; that He will repeat them in His speech; that He will revive them in His word. It seems rather, as if His faintest disclosure, His least word, would shed abundant light on all doubts, would take the weight from our minds, would remove the gnawing anguish from our hearts. Surely, surely, if He speaks He will make an end of speaking, He will show us some good, He will destroy “the veil that is spread over all nations,” and the “covering over all people”; He will not “darken counsel by words without knowledge”.
To this line of argument we know of but one objection; it may be said, that, from the immensity of the universe in which man is, reasons may exist for communicating to him facts of which he cannot appreciate the importance, but a belief in which may nevertheless be most important to his ultimate welfare. Of this kind, according to some divines, is the doctrine of the “Atonement”. As they think, it is impossible to explain the mode in which the death of Christ conduces to the forgiveness of sin, or why a belief in it should be made, as they think it is, a necessary preliminary to such forgiveness. They consider that this is a revealed matter of fact; part of a system of things which is not known now, which would very likely be above our understanding if it were explained, which, at all events, is not explained. We reply, that the revelation of an inexplicable fact is possible, and that, if adequate evidence could be adduced in its favour, we might be bound to acquiesce in it; but that, on the other hand, such a revelation is extremely improbable: so far as we can see, there was no occasion for it; it helps in nothing, explains to us nothing; it enlarges our knowledge only thus far, that for some unknown reason we are bound to believe something from which certain effects follow in a manner which we cannot understand. Such a revelation is, as has been said, possible; but it is much more likely, a priori, that a revelation, if given, would be a revelation of facts suited to our comprehension, and throwing a light on the world in which we are.
The same remark is applicable to a revelation commanding rites and ceremonies which do not come home to the conscience as duties, and of which the reasons are not explained to us by the revelation itself. The Pharisaic code of “cups and washings” is an obvious instance. It is obviously most improbable that we should be ordered to do these things. The fact may be so; but the evidence of it should be overwhelming, and should be examined with almost suspicious and sceptical care. A revelation of a rule of life which approves itself to the heart, which awakens conscience, which seems to come from God, is the greatest conceivable aid to man, the greatest explanation of our most practical perplexities; a revelation of rites and ordinances is a revelation of new difficulties, telling us nothing of God, imposing an additional taskwork on ourselves.
We are to remember, that the Analogy is, as the Germans would speak, a “Kritik” of every possible revelation. The first principle of it rests on the inquiry, “What would it be likely that a revelation, if vouchsafed, would contain?” The whole argument is one of preconception, presumption, and probability. It claims to establish a principle, which may be used in defence of any revelation, the Mahomedan as well as the Christian; according to it, as soon as you can show that a difficulty exists in Nature, you may immediately expect to find it in revelation. If carried out to its extreme logical development, it would come to this, that if a catalogue were constructed of all the inexplicable arrangements and difficulties of Nature, you might confidently anticipate that these very same difficulties in the same degree and in the same points would be found in revelation. Both being from the same Author, it is presumed that each would resemble the other. The principle, even to this length, is enunciated by Mr. Rogers; the difficulties of Nature are the α β γ of the extract: and he asserts, that if you can show that all of them exist in one system, you have every reason to expect all of them in the other. Yet, surely, what can be more monstrous than that a supernatural communication from God should simply enumerate all the difficulties of His natural government and not enlighten us as to any of them—should revive our perplexities without removing them—should not satisfy one doubt or one anxiety, but repeat and proclaim every fact which can give a basis to them both?
The case does not rest here. There is a second ground of objection to the argument of the Analogy on which we are inclined to lay nearly equal stress. As has been said, it is most likely that a revelation from God would explain at least a part of the religious difficulties of man; and, in matter of fact, all systems purporting to be revelations have in their respective degrees professed to do so. They all deal with what may be called the system of the universe—its moral plan and scheme; the destiny of man therein—the motives from which God created it—and the manner in which He directs it. Throughout the whole range of doctrines, from Mormonism up to Christianity, no one has ever gained any acceptance, has ever, perhaps, been sincerely put forward, which did not deal with this whole range of facts—which did not tell man, according to his view, whence he is, and whither he goes. Revelations, as such, are communications concerning eternity. Now, it seems to us, that so far from its being likely, a priori, that a revelation of this sort would contain the same perplexing difficulties which cause so much evil in this world, in the same degree in which they exist here, it would be scarcely possible by any evidence, a posteriori, to establish the communication of such a system from the Divine Being. It seems clear on the surface of the subject that, the extent of the unknown world being so enormous in comparison with that which is known, this scene being so petty, and the plan of Providence so vast—earth being little, and space infinite—Time short, and Eternity long—a difficulty, which is of no moment in so contracted a sphere as this, becomes of infinite moment when extended to the sphere of the Almighty. From the smallness of the region which we see—the short time which we live—from the few things which we know—it may well be that there are points which perplex the feebleness of our understanding and puzzle the best feelings of our hearts. We see, as some one expresses it, the universe “not in plan but in section”; and we cannot expect to understand very much of it. But when our knowledge increases—when, by a revelation, that plan is unfolded to us—when God vouchsafes to communicate to us the system on which He acts, then it is rational to expect those difficulties would diminish—would gradually disappear as the light dawned upon us—would vanish finally when the dayspring arose in our hearts. If a difficulty of Nature be repeated in revelation, it would seem to show that it was not, as we had before supposed, a consequence of our short-sighted views and contracted knowledge, but a real inherent element in the scheme of the universe; not a petty shade on a petty globe, but a pervading inherent stain, extending over all things, destroying the beauty of the universe, impairing the perfectness of all creation. Take, as an instance, the extreme doctrine of Antinomian Calvinism—suppose that the eternal condition of man depended in no degree on his acts, or works, or upon himself in any form, but on an arbitrary act of selection by God, which chose some, independently of any antecedent fitness on their part, for eternal happiness, and consigns all others—irrespective of their guilt or innocence—to eternal ruin. Nothing, of course, can be more shocking than such a doctrine when stated in simple language; and if it really were contained in any document that professes to be a revelation, we should be plainly justified in passing it by as a document which no evidence would prove to have been inspired by God. Yet the doctrine certainly does not want partial analogies in this world. The condition of men here does seem to be in a considerable measure the result not of what they do, or of what their characters are, but of the mere circumstances in which they are placed, over which they have no control, choice, or power. One man is born in a ditch, another in a palace; one with a gloomy and painful, another with a cheerful and happy mind; one to honour, another to dishonour. We invent words—fortune, luck, chance—to express in a subtle way the notion that some seem the favourites of circumstance, others the scapegoats. So far as it goes, this is a distinct “election” on the part of God of some to misery, of others to felicity, irrespective of their personal qualities. Accordingly, it may be argued, why should we not expect to find the same in the world of revelation, which is from the hand of the same Creator? But this will scarcely impose on any one. A certain indignation arises within us—Conscience uplifts her voice, and we reply, “It may well be that for a short time God may afflict His people without their own fault, but that He should do so for ever—that He should make no end of injustice—that He favours one without a reason, and condemns another without a fault—this, come what may, we will not believe—we would sooner cast ourselves at large on the waste of uncertainty;—pass on with your teaching, and ask God, if so be that He will pardon you for attributing such things to Him”. We need not further enlarge on this.
Again—and in the practical conduct of the argument this is a very material consideration—all revelations impute intentions to God. Acts are done, observances enjoined, a providential plan pursued, for reasons which are explained. The cause of this is evident from our previous reasoning. As we have seen, all revelations profess to vindicate the ways of God to man; and it is impossible to do so effectually without declaring to us at least some of His motives and designs. It is most important to observe, that no analogy from Nature can justify us in judging of these except by the standard of right or wrong which God has implanted within us. From external observation we learn almost nothing of God’s intentions. The scheme is too large; the universe too unbounded. One phenomenon follows another; but, except in a few cases, and then very dubiously, we cannot tell which was created for which—which was the design—which the means—which the determining object—and which the subservient purpose. Even in the few cases in which we do impute such intentions, we do so because they seem to be in harmony with God’s moral character; they are not strictly proved, they are mere conjectures; and we should reject at once any that might seem ethically unworthy. But the case is different with a revelation which, from its own nature, unfolds ends and instruments in their due measure and their actual subordination, which develops an orderly system, and communicates hidden motives and unforeseen designs. A recent writer, for example, thus defends certain apparent cruelties of the Old Testament by stating those of Nature: “God,” he says, “sends His pestilence, and produces horrors on which imagination dare not dwell; horrors not only physical, but indirectly moral; often transforming man into something like the fiend so many say he can never become. He sends His famine, and thousands perish—men and women, and ‘the child that knows not its right hand from its left’—in prolonged and frightful agonies. He opens the mouths of volcanoes and lakes; boils and fries the population of a whole city in torrents of burning lava, etc., etc.”1 —with much else to the same purpose. But this must not be adduced in extenuation of anything of which the reasons are narrated; on the contrary, these last must be judged of by the moral faculties which are among God’s highest gifts. To the infliction of pain, with an express view to what conscience tells us to be an unworthy object, outward Nature does and can afford no parallel. She has no avowals; it is but from conjecture that we conceive her motives; her laws pass forward; the crush of her forces is upon us; like a child in a railway, we know not anything. The incomprehensible has no analogy to the explained; the mysterious none to that on which the oracle has intelligibly spoken.
Lastly, for a similar reason it is impossible that there should be any analogy in Nature for a precept from God opposed to the law of conscience. External Nature gives no precept; our knowledge of our duty comes from within; the physical world is subordinate to our inward teaching; it is silent on points of morality. On the other hand, a revelation, supposing satisfactory means of attesting it were found, might possibly contain such a precept. It is very painful to put such suppositions before the mind; but the pain is inherent in the nature of the subject. The topic of the difficulties and perplexities of man cannot, by any artifice of rhetoric, be rendered pleasing. In such a case, supposing there to be no difficulty of evidence in the case, our duty might be to obey God even against conscience, from that assurance of His essential perfection which is the most certain attestation of conscience. But the existence of such a difficulty is in the highest degree improbable; it is one which ought only to be admitted on the completest proof and after the most rigid straining of evidence; it is, from the nature of the case, without a parallel in the common and unrevealed world.
To all these considerable objections, we believe the argument of the Analogy is properly subject. We think in general that, according to every reasonable presumption, a revelation would not repeat the same difficulties as are to be found in Nature, but would remove and explain some of them; that difficulties, which are of small importance in the natural world, on account of the smallness of its sphere and the brevity of its duration, become of insuperable magnitude when extended to infinity and eternity, when alleged to be co-extensive with the universe, and to be inherent in its scheme and structure; and that—what is of less universal scope, but still of essential importance—Nature offers no analogy to the ascription by any professed revelation of an unworthy intention to God, or the inculcation through it of an immoral precept on man.
It is impossible, then, by any such argument as this, to remove from moral criticism the entire contents of any revelation. According to the more natural view, the unimpeachable morality of those contents is a most essential part of the evidence on which our belief must rest; and this seems to remain so, notwithstanding these refinements. On the other hand, we do not contend that the reasoning of the Analogy is wholly worthless. If Butler’s1 argument had only been adduced to this extent; if it had only been argued that, though a revelation might be expected to explain some difficulties, it could not be expected to explain all; that a certain number would, from our ignorance and unworthiness, still remain; and these residuary difficulties would be of the same order, class, and kind, to which we were accustomed; that the style of Providence, if one may so say, would be the same in the newly-communicated phenomena as we had observed it to be in those we were familiar with before,—there could be little question of the soundness of the principle. No one would expect that there would be new difficulties introduced by a revelation; what difficulties were found in it we should expect to be identical with those observed before in Nature; or, at least, to be similar to them, and likely to be explained in the same way by a more adequate knowledge of God’s purposes. We should particularly expect the difficulties of revelation to be like those of Nature, limited in time and range, not extending to the entire scheme of Providence, not diffused through infinity and eternity, not imputing evil intentions to God, not inculcating immoral precepts on man. We can hardly be said to expect to find difficulties in revelation at all; the utmost that seems probable, a priori, is, that it should leave unnoticed some of those of Nature. Nevertheless, there is no violent, no overwhelming improbability in the fact of some perplexing points being contained in a communication from God; we are so weak, that it may be we cannot entirely understand the smallest intimation from the Infinite Being. And if difficulties are found there, they are, of course, less perplexing, when resembling those which we knew before, than if they be wholly distinct and new in kind. But this principle is, on the face of it, very different from the admission of an antecedent probability, that all the difficulties discoverable in Nature would be daguerreotyped in a revelation.
The difference is seen very clearly by looking at the argument which Butler’s reasoning is intended to confute. Suppose a professed revelation to be laid before a person who was before unacquainted with it, and that he finds in it several perplexing points. According to Butler’s principle, or what is supposed by Mr. Rogers to be Butler’s principle, it is enough to reply: You have those same difficulties in Nature before; you cannot consistently object to them now; they have not prevented your ascribing Nature to a Divine Author; they should not prevent you from ascribing to Him this revelation. Nature is so full of difficulties, that almost every doctrine that has ever been attributed to revelation may be provided with a parallel more or less apt. Consequently, it would be almost needless to criticise the contents of any alleged revelation, when we may be met so easily by such a reply. No careful reasoner would attempt that criticism. According to the doctrine which we have reiterated, we should deem it a difficulty that these perplexing points should be found in a revelation; but that difficulty would not amount to much, would not counterbalance strong evidence, if it could be shown that the system claiming to be revealed, although leaving these points unexplained, threw ample light on others; that what gave cause for perplexity was quite subordinate to what removed perplexity; that no immoral actions were enjoined on man; no unworthy motives imputed to God; no vice attributed to the whole scheme and plan of the Creator. There would therefore remain the largest scope for internal criticism on all systems claiming to be messages from God; on the very face they must seem worthy of Him: in their very essence they must seem good.
This is plainly the obvious view. The natural opinion certainly is that the moral and religious faculties would be those on which we should primarily depend, in judging of an alleged communication from heaven; in deciding whether it have a valid claim to that character or no. These faculties are those which, antecedently to revelation, determine our belief in all other moral and religious questions, and it is therefore natural to look to them as the best judges of the authenticity of an alleged revelation. Many divines, however, struggle to deny this. Thus, in the memoir of Butler we are now reviewing, Mr. Rogers observes,—
“The immortal Analogy has probably done more to silence the objections of infidelity than any other ever written from the earliest ‘apologies’ downwards. It not only most critically met the spirit of unbelief in the author’s own day, but is equally adapted to meet that which chiefly prevails in all time. In every age, some of the principal, perhaps the principal, objections to the Christian Revelation have been those which men’s preconceptions of the Divine character and administration—of what God must be, and of what God must do—have suggested against certain facts in the sacred history, or certain doctrines it reveals. To show the objector, then (supposing him to be a theist, as nine-tenths of all such objectors have been), that the very same or similar difficulties are found in the structure of the universe and the Divine administration of it, is to wrest every such weapon completely from his hands, if he be a fair reasoner and remain a theist at all. He is bound, by strict logical obligation, either to show that the parallel difficulties do not exist, or to show how he can solve them, while he cannot solve those of the Bible. In default of doing either of these things, he ought either to renounce all such objections to Christianity, or abandon theism altogether. It is true, therefore, that though Butler leaves the alternative of atheism open, he hardly leaves any other alternative to nine-tenths of the theists who have objected to Christianity.”
And there is a perpetual reiteration in the Eclipse of Faith1 of the same reasoning. In fact, so far as the latter work has a distinct principle, this argument may be said to be that principle. The answer is, that the proof of all “revelation” itself rests on a “preconception” respecting the Divine character, and that, if we assume the truth of that one “preconception,” we must not reject any others which may be found to have the same evidence. We refer, of course, to the assumption of God’s veracity; which can only be proved by arguments that, if admitted, would likewise justify our attributing to Him all other perfect virtues. It is evident that a doubt as to this attribute is not only impious in itself, but quite destructive of all confidence in any communication which may be received from Him. And yet, on what evidence does its acceptance rest? It cannot be said to be demonstrated by what scientific men call “natural theology”. Competent and careful persons examine the material world, the structure of animals and plants, the courses of the planets, the muscles of man, and they find there a great preponderance of benevolence. They show, with great labour and great merit, that the Being who arranged this universe is, on the whole, a benevolent Being; but does it follow that He will tell the truth? “In crossing a heath,” says Paley, “suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer: but, suppose I had found a watch on the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch came to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that, for anything I knew, it had been always there.” And he shows, with his usual power, that this watch was, in all likelihood, made by a watchmaker. There is nothing cleverer, perhaps, in argumentative writing, than the way in which that argument is stated and pointed. But what evidence is there that the watchmaker was veracious? The amplest examination of the most refined designs, the minutest scrutiny of the most complex contrivances, do not go one hair’s breadth to establish any such conclusion. Nor can it be shown that the virtue of veracity is identical with, or consequent on, the virtue of simple benevolence. We know well in common life that there are such things as pleasing falsehoods, and that such things exist as disagreeable truths. A person (what we ordinarily call a good-natured person) whose only motive is simple benevolence, will constantly assert the first and deny the second. In its application to religion this tendency cannot be illustrated without suppositions which it is painful even to make; but yet they must be made for a moment, or the necessary argument must be left incomplete. Suppose, what is doubtless true, that the belief in a “future state,” even if false, contributes to the temporal happiness of man in this world; that it does more to enlarge his hopes, stimulate his imagination, and alleviate his sorrows, than any one other consideration; that it contributes to the order of society and the progress of civilisation; that it is, as some one says, “the last restraint of the powerful, and the last hope of the wretched”. Indisputably, a Being whose only motive was benevolence, who admitted no higher consideration, who looked steadily and solely to our mere happiness, would endeavour to instil that belief although it were quite untrue, would not think that that had anything to do with the question, would not hesitate to make a false revelation to confirm men in a belief so pleasant, so advantageous, so consolatory. Perhaps this supposition drives the argument home. We see that it is necessary for us to admit a “preconception” as to the character of God before we can even begin to prove the truth of a revelation; that we must reason of “what God must be and God must do,” before we show that there is even a presumption in favour of any facts, or any doctrines, which are revealed in the “sacred history”.
We have hinted, in an earlier part of this essay, that this doctrine of God’s veracity seems to us to rest on the general assumption of the existence of a “perfect” Being, who rules and controls all things. It is, perhaps, the Divine attribute of which it is most difficult to find a trace in Nature. Of His omnipotence, justice, benevolence, we cannot, indeed, find absolute proof; for we believe that those attributes are infinite, and we can only prove them strictly with respect to the finite and very circumscribed world which we see and know. Yet, at the same time, we discern indications and strong probabilities, that the Ruler of the world possesses these attributes; we can hardly be said to be able to do this with His veracity. The speechlessness of Nature, if we may again so speak, deprives us of any such evidence. All Theism is of the nature of faith. We can never prove from experience any being to be infinite, for our experience itself is essentially small and finite. We can often, however, as in the instance of the attributes of God above enumerated, and of others which might be added, establish by observation that the qualities in question exist in a certain degree, and we have only to rely on the principle of faith for our belief that these qualities exist in a perfect and supreme degree. In the case of the Divine veracity, it should seem that we believe it to exist in a perfect and infinite degree, without, from the peculiarity of our circumstances, being able to fortify it by any test or trial from experience.
Present controversies show that there should be a distinct understanding as to this matter. Such writers as the author of the Eclipse of Faith perpetually strive to justify what they think the difficulties of revelation, by insinuating—we might say inculcating—a scepticism as to the religious faculties and conscience of man. These faculties are at one time said to be “depraved”; once they were trustworthy, but man is fallen from that high estate; he can only now believe what is announced to him externally. But how can we then rely on those “depraved” faculties for our belief in the truthfulness of the Being who announces these things? At another time all the horrid superstitions, all the immoral rites, all the wretched aberrations of savage and licentious nations, are enumerated, displayed, inculcated, in order to convince us that these faculties give no certain information. We will not quote the passages. We do not like to read hard attacks even on the worst side of human nature; we cannot, like some, gloat upon such details. The argument is plain without any painful accuracy. How can you believe in the “intuition” of the Divine justice, when the Hindoo says this? How in that of His holiness, when the Papuan accepts that impurity? But this is no defence for any revelation. The writers who exult in such errors because they think they can use them in their logic, are really cutting away the substratum of evidentiary argument from under them. The veracity of God has not been accepted by all nations any more than His justice. In many times and countries He has been thought to inspire falsehoods, to put a “lying spirit” in the mouths of men, to deceive them to their destruction. Agamemnon’s dream is but the type of a whole class of legends imputing untrue revelations to the gods. If we liked such work, we might prove, perhaps, that there is no man on the earth whose ancestors have not believed the like. And what then? Why, we can only answer that, debased, depraved, imperfect as they may be, these faculties are our all. It is on them that we depend for life, and breath, and all things. We must believe our heart and conscience, or we shall believe nothing. We must believe that God cannot lie, or we must renounce all that our highest and innermost nature most cleaves to; but if we go so far, we must go further—we cannot believe in God’s veracity and deny the intuition of His justice—we know that He is pure on the same ground that we know that He is true. If an alleged revelation contradict this justice or this purity, we must at once deny that it can have proceeded from Him.
Even admitting, as we think it must be admitted, that Butler did not firmly hold the principle which Mr. Rogers and others ascribe to him, some may find a difficulty in so great a thinker having even a tendency towards that tenet. On examination, however, the very error seems characteristic of him.
A mind such as Butler’s was in a previous page described to be, is very apt to be prone to over-refinement. A thinker of what was there called the picturesque order has a vision, a picture of the natural view of the subject. Those certainties and conclusions, those doubts and difficulties, which occur on the surface, strike him at once; he sees with his mind’s eye some conspicuous instance in which all such certainties are realised, and by which all such doubts are suggested. Some great typical fact remains delineated before his mind, and is a perpetual answer to all hypotheses which strive to be oversubtle. But an unimaginative thinker has no such assistance; he has no pictures or instances in his mind; he works by a process like an accountant, and like an accountant he is dependent on the correctness with which he works. He begins with a principle and reasons from it; and if any error have crept into the deduction or into the principle, he has not any means of detecting it. His mind does not yield, as with more fertile fancies, a stock of instances on which to verify his elaborate conclusions. Accordingly he is apt to say he has explained a difficulty, when in reality he has but refined it away.
Again, there is likewise a deeper sense in which the argument of the Analogy is, even in its least valuable portions, characteristic of Butler. On topics so peculiar, the minds most likely to hold right opinions are exactly those most likely to advance wrong arguments in support of them. The opinions themselves are suggested and supported by deep and strong feelings, which it is painful to analyse, and not easy to describe. The real and decisive arguments for those opinions are little save a rational analysis and acute delineation of those feelings. It will necessarily follow that the mind most prone to delineate and analyse that part of itself will be most likely to succeed in the argumentative exposition of these topics; and this is not likely to be the mind which feels those emotions with the greatest intensity. The very keenness of these feelings makes them painful to touch; their depth, difficult to find: constancy, too, is liable to disguise them. The mind which always feels them will, so to speak, be less conscious of them than one which is only visited by them at long and rare intervals. Those who know a place or a person best are not those most likely to describe them best; their knowledge is so familiar that they cannot bring it out in words. A deep, steady under-current of strong feeling is precisely what affects men’s highest opinions most, and exactly what prevents men from being able adequately to describe them. In the absence of the delineative faculty, without the power to state their true reasons, minds of this deep and steadfast class are apt to put up with reasons which lie on the surface. They are caught by an appearance of fairness, affect a dry and intellectual tone, endeavour to establish their conclusions without the premises which are necessary,—without mention of the grounds on which, in their own minds, they really rest. The very heartfelt confidence of Butler in Christianity was perhaps the cause of his seeming in part to support it with considerations which appear to be erroneous.
It seems odd to say, and yet it is true, that the power of the Analogy is in its rhetoric. The ancient writers on that art made a distinction between the modes of persuasion which lay in the illustrative and argumentative efficacy of what was said, and a yet more subtle kind which seemed to reside in the manner and disposition of the speaker himself. In the first class, as has been before remarked, no writer of equal eminence is so defective as Butler; his thoughts, if you take each one singly, seem to lose a good deal from the feeble and hesitating manner in which they are stated. And yet, if you read any considerable portion of his writings, you become sensible of a strong disinclination to disagree with him. A strong anxiety first to find the truth, and next to impart it—an evident wish not to push arguments too far—a clear desire not to convince men except by reasonable arguments of true opinions, characterises every feeble word and halting sentence. Nothing is laid down to dazzle or arouse. It is assumed that the reader wants to know what is true, as much as the writer does to tell it. Very possibly this may not be the highest species of religious author. The vehement temperament, the bold assertion, the ecstatic energy of men like St. Augustine or St. Paul, burn, so to speak, into the minds and memories of men, and remain there at once and for ever. Such men excel in the broad statement of great truths which flash at once with vivid evidence on the minds which receive them. The very words seem to glow with life; and even the sceptical reader is half awakened by them to a kindred and similar warmth. Such are the men who move the creeds of mankind, and stamp a likeness of themselves on ages that succeed them. But there is likewise room for a quieter class, who partially state arguments, elaborate theories, appreciate difficulties, solve doubts; who do not expect to gain a hearing from the many—who do not cry in the streets or lift their voice from the hill of Mars—who address quiet and lonely thinkers like themselves, and are well satisfied if a single sentence in all their writings remove one doubt from the mind of any man. Of these was Butler. Requiescat in pace, for it was peace that he loved.
END OF VOL. I.
aberdeen: the university press
WORKS BY WALTER BAGEHOT
With Portrait. 3 vols. Crown 8vo, 3s. 6d. each.
Vol. I. Preliminary Memoir—Hartley Coleridge—Shakespeare, the Man—William Cowper—The First Edinburgh Reviewers—Edward Gibbon—Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Vol. II. Thomas Babington Macaulay—Béranger—The Waverley Novels—Charles Dickens—John Milton—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu—Clough’s Poems—Sterne and Thackeray—Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning; or Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art in English Poetry.
Vol. III. Letters on the Coup d’Etat of 1851—Cæsarism as it existed in 1865—Oxford—Bishop Butler—The Ignorance of Man—On the Emotion of Conviction—The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration—The Public Worship Regulation Bill—Henry Crabb Robinson—Bad Lawyers or Good?—The Credit Mobilier and Banking Companies in France—Memoir of the Right Hon. James Wilson—The Chances of a Long Conservative Régime in England (1878)—Boscastle—Mr. Grote.
Crown 8vo, 3s. 6d.
The Character of Sir Robert Peel—Lord Brougham—Mr. Gladstone—William Pitt—Bolingbroke as a Statesman—Sir George Cornewall Lewis—Adam Smith as a Person—Lord Althorp and the Reform Act of 1832.
Addenda:—The Prince Consort—What Lord Lyndhurst really was—The Tribute at Hereford to Sir G. C. Lewis—Mr. Cobden—Lord Palmerston—The Earl of Clarendon—Mr. Lowe as Chancellor of the Exchequer—Monsieur Guizot—Professor Cairnes—Mr. Disraeli as a Member of the House of Commons.
Crown 8vo, 3s. 6d.
The Postulates of English Political Economy (1) Transferability of Labour; (2) Transferability of Capital—The Preliminaries of Political Economy—Adam Smith and our Modern Economy—Malthus—Ricardo—The Growth of Capital—Cost of Production.
THE LIFE OF WALTER BAGEHOT. By his Sister-in-Law (Mrs. Russell Barrington). With Portraits and other Illustrations. 8vo, 12s. 6d. net.
LONGMANS, GREEN AND CO.,
london, new york, bombay, calcutta, and madras.
[1 ] A Madras word which means a kind of village mayor.
[1 ]Report of Her Majesty’s Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State, Discipline and Studies of the University of Oxford, together with the Evidence, and an Appendix. London, 1852.
[1 ] “Placuit Academiæ,” says Laud himself, “in frequenti Convocatione (ne uno refragante) rem totam ad me curamque meam referre ut sub incude meâ Statuta hæc limarentur et a me confirmationem acciperent.”
[1 ] We quote here, as on all other occasions, the translation of the Laudian Code by Mr. Ward, one of the many useful works which Academical Reformers owe to the zeal and liberality of Mr. Heywood.
[1 ] Four “Bible clerks” to perform menial offices are the only exception.
[1 ] Sewell on Plato, p. 125.
[1 ] Anthony à Wood.
[1 ] Hartley Coleridge’s Lives of the Northern Worthies. A new edition. 3 vols. Moxon.
[2 ] This essay was published immediately after the death of the Duke of Wellington.
[3 ] Hartley Coleridge: “Sonnet to Childhood”.
[1 ] John Henry Newman.
[1 ] Rev. Alexander Dyce.
[1 ] Keats in the Preface to “Endymion”.
[1 ] Shakespeare: “Hamlet”.
[1 ]Paradise Lost.
[1 ] “Lines on a Friend” (November, 1794).
[1 ] Coleridge: “Fears in Solitude” (1798).
[1 ] Wordsworth’s “Excursion”.
[2 ] “Tintern Abbey.”
[1 ] “Feast of Brougham Castle.”
[2 ] “Tintern Abbey.”
[3 ] Hartley Coleridge: “Sonnet”.
[1 ] Hartley Coleridge: “Sonnet”.
[1 ] “Feast of Brougham Castle.”
[2 ] Hartley Coleridge: “Sonnet”.
[1 ]Shakespeare et son Temps: Étude Littéraire. Par M. Guizot. Paris, 1852.
Notes and Emendations to the Text of Shakespeare’s Plays from early Manuscript Corrections in a Copy of the Folio, 1632, in the possession of R. Payne Collier, Esq., F.S.A. London, 1853.
[1 ] “As You Like It,” iv. 3.
[1 ] “Venus and Adonis.”
[1 ] Wordsworth: “Tintern Abbey”.
[1 ] “Marmion,” Introduction to canto iii.
[2 ] “A Winter’s Tale,” iv. 3.
[1 ]Paradise Lost, book iv.
[2 ] “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” iv. 1.
[3 ]Ibid., next line.
[1 ] Byron: “Don Juan,” i., cxciv.
[1 ] “Much Ado about Nothing,” iii. 5.
[1 ] “2 King Henry VI.,” iv. 2.
[2 ] Shakespeare; “Sonnet,” cxi.
[1 ] “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” v. 1.
[1 ] “2 King Henry VI.,” ii. 4.
[1 ] Shelley: “Sonnet” (1818).
[1 ] “3 King Henry VI.,” ii. 5.
[1 ] “As You Like It,” ii. 7.
[2 ] “Hamlet,” iii. 2.
[1 ] Tennyson: “Locksley Hall”,
[2 ] Lucretius, i. 24.
[1 ] “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” v. 1.
[1 ] “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” ii. 1.
[1 ] “2 King Henry VI.,” iv. 2.
[1 ] “Julius Cæsar,” iii. 2.
[1 ] “As You Like It,” iii. 5.
[1 ] “Twelfth Night,” iii. 2.
[2 ] Matthew Arnold: “The Youth of Nature”.
[1 ] Shelley: “Alastor”.
[2 ] The only antiquarian thing which can be fairly called an anecdote of Shakespeare is, that Mrs. Alleyne, a shrewd woman in those times, and married to Mr. Alleyne, the founder of Dulwich Hospital, was one day, in the absence of her husband, applied to on some matter by a player who gave a reference to Mr. Hemmings (the “notorious” Mr. Hemmings, the commentators say) and to Mr. Shakespeare of the Globe, and that the latter, when referred to, said: “Yes, certainly, he knew him, and he was a rascal and good-for-nothing”. The proper speech of a substantial man such as it is worth while to give a reference to.
[1 ]Some Remains (hitherto unpublished) of Joseph Butler, LL.D., sometime Lord Bishop of Durham.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. VI., Part II. Article, Joseph Butler. By Henry Rogers, Author of the Eclipse of Faith. Eighth Edition.
[2 ]Fragments, No. ii.
[1 ] Shelley: “To a Skylark”.
[1 ] Shelley: “Alastor”.
[2 ] John Henry Newman: Letter to Dr. Jelf on Tract Ninety.
[3 ] Lord Hervey’s Memoirs of the Reign of George II., chap. xxxi.
[4 ]Fragments, No. ii.
[1 ] John Henry Newman’s Loss and Gain, vol. ii., chap. ix.
[1 ] See Bishop Halifax’s Preface to the Analogy.
[2 ] Shelley: “Alastor”.
[1 ] Shelley: “Queen Mab”.
[1 ] Wordsworth: “Excursion,” book i.
[2 ]Ibid.: “Tintern Abbey”.
[1 ] Hazlitt: Northcote’s Conversations, x.
[1 ] Trench: On the Synonyms of the New Testament (p. 191).
[2 ] Shelley: “Epipsychidion”,
[1 ] St. Augustine: De Trinitate, book v., chap. i., p. 2.
[1 ] Trench, ubi supra.
[1 ] Part i., chap. vi., p. 24.
[1 ] Preface to Sermons.
[1 ]The Prospective Review.
[1 ] Professor Rogers’s Defence of the “Eclipse of Faith,” p. 43. It is to be observed, we are not at all speaking of the facts of the Old Testament; we are but limiting the considerations on which the above writer has rested its defence. These refined reasonings but weaken the case they are brought to support. “I did not know,” said George III., “that the Bible needed an apology.”
[1 ] We doubt, however, if Butler would at all have accepted Mr. Rogers’s statement of his view, though it is perhaps the most common interpretation of him. Probably, he really meant no more than what we contend for, though his language is not always so limited in terms.
[1 ]The Eclipse of Faith; or a visit to a religious sceptic. By Henry Rogers. London, 1852.