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Browning's intellectual eagerness was in part at least the result of his method of education. It was, as Professor Phelps observes, “the elective system pushed to its last possibility." His father, a well-to-do banker with a penchant for versifying and drawing, and his mother, a spirituelle woman of quick sympathies and refined musical sense, brought their son up on the theory that the office of education is to minister to the tastes and interests of a lad as these reveal themselves. Consequently, after fourteen Robert never went to school, save for a little Greek instruction at the University of London, but was taught at home by his parents and tutors.
The road was kept constantly cleared in front of his growing interests. Thus when he began to show an interest in chemistry, he was provided with a private laboratory in the house. The back garden, in turn, was early transformed into a menagerie where birds, animals, and reptiles could be observed at leisure, and the lad thus early began to build up a knowledge of natural history that later contributed jerboas, auks, tortoises, newts, and Oriental spiders to his poetry. Music, drawing, modeling, poetry and fiction, languages, sciences, history, and philosophy, each ministered to his cravings, and for relaxation he was taught to dance, box, fence, and ride. He always retained, by the way, a fondness for dancing and some of his most spirited poems are tributes to horses that he loved.
But no other subject ever interested him so much as men and women, what they are like, what they do, and why they do it. All sorts and conditions of people troop through his poetry, and he ranges up and down the centuries trying to see the world through the eyes of the most diverse, from Caliban, the primitive man, making God in the likeness of his own mean and superstitious nature, to Lazarus, feeling again for the earthly path with the blinding light of heaven in his eyes.
Catholic as were his early interests, from the very first he showed a predilection for the arts, as his own inevitable field for creative expression. At two years and three
. months he painted a cottage and some rocks which was thought a masterpiece," using a lead pencil and black-currant jam-juice; at twelve he was seeking a publisher for a little volume of poems; and at fourteen he was writing settings for songs. At seventeen, with the sympathetic approval of his father, he formally committed himself to poetry.
The long years of public neglect, changing gradually to partial and then general recognition, the poet's romantic attachment to a kindred poet, Elizabeth Barrett, “a soul of fire enclosed in a shell of pearl,” their elopement and rapturous married life in Italy, his brave acceptance of her death, his generous mingling with his fellows, – these all are twice-told tales.
Browning secured a hearing in America well in advance of his acceptance by England and he has always had a host of admirers on this side of the water. This is because he is like us when we are running truest to form. Like us in his buoyancy, his energy, his democratic interest in folk, and his persistent optimism.
William Morris (1834-1896) did more than any other Englishman of his generation to heighten pleasure through beauty. Fancy yourself in a room papered in Morris designs, with drapes of Morris textiles at the windows and hand-woven rugs on the floor, seated before a cheerful fireplace of hand-wrought tiles, reading one of Morris's own dreamy tales in an illuminated edition from the Kelmscott Press. Morris was indeed a man of remarkable versatility and of abounding energy, -poet, artist, designer, craftsman, manufacturer; and he turned this fine energy and resource into many channels for what his biographer, J. W. Mackail, has happily termed "the reintegration of human life.”
It was this same ardent desire to restore and enrich living that led him at the age of forty-nine to embrace socialism. In the words of Mackail, “He found himself forced reluctantly to the conclusion that hitherto he had not gone to the root of the matter; that, art being a function of life, sound art was impossible except when life was organized under sound conditions; that the tendency of what is called civilization since the great industrial revolution had been to dehumanize life; and that the only hope for the future was, if that were yet possible, to reconstitute society on a new basis."
Stocky in build, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with rugged features, hair and beard tossing wavelike, and eyes of the sea's own depth, he looked like one of that band of roving vikings who, in The Earthly Paradise, spend a year on the fabled island of Atlantis, exchanging stories with the Greeks.
Morris was born in the confines of the old Epping Forest, and he spent much of his boyhood roving through this magic woodland, little changed since the medieval days, a wold where one half expects at any time to chance upon a knight, or yeoman from Robin Hood's band. It is this spirit of medieval enchantment that one finds in all of Morris's early verse.
In 1849 three boys, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Holman Hunt, aged respectively nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one, contributed to the annual free exhibition three canvases — "Isabella” (a banquet scene from Isabella and the Pot of Basil), “The Girlhood of Virgin Mary," and "Rienzi Vowing to Avenge His Brother's Death,” which caused the London of art to catch its breath and then to break forth in a storm of protest. These three lads, rebels from the Royal Academy School, were members of the new Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood which had set itself no less a task than to overthrow the accepted canons of painting. For the traditional eighteenth century pseudo-classical conventions of idealized prettiness and insipid sentiment they substituted detailed and faithful imitation of nature and subjects of spiritual or dramatic significance. They accomplished their end, for, whatever fault may be found with the mannerisms of Pre-Raphaelite art, it broke up traditionalism.
To the short-lived magazine which the Brotherhood published, Rossetti contributed My Sister's Sleep, and The Blessed Damodel. The former, written when Rossetti was only nineteen, is the very embodiment of the Pre-Raphaelite creed. The refined notation of sound, light, and color, the dramatic economy, and the superb burst of idealism at the close bespeak the highest genius. The Blessed Damocel is prophetic of the sublimated phrasing and the languid sensuousness which denote all of Rossetti's later art, whether with pen or with brush.
In 1851 Rossetti became engaged to Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, a tall, willowy young woman with a wealth of coppery hair, but with a tendency to consumption. Her delicate health and Rossetti's scantiness of means postponed the marriage until 1860, and this was followed by her death from an overdose of laudanum in less than two years. In an agony of grief Rossetti placed his unpublished poems, including the sonnets of The House of Life, in the coffin. There they remained for seven years. These sonnets, the most teasingly subtle expression of brooding, ultra-refined moods, record the history of the poet's love. Rossetti would have been a more normal man if this engagement had not been so protracted, but literature would have been the poorer by the most sublimated erotic poems in the language, hovering though they are on the verge of morbidity.
Rossetti's poetry was made possible by the fusion of choice Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean blood. It is the quintessence of romance, compounded of the romance of the north and the romance of the south. The fine blue-grey eyes, the domed, Shakespearian forehead, and the full sensual underlip tell the whole story of the poet and of his art.
When Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) addressed François Villon as “Prince of sweet songs made out of tears and fire,” he wrote his own epitaph. Last of the Victorian poets to cross the farther threshold of life, he had been the consistent arch-enemy of all that Victorianism conventionally implies. A passionate lover of liberty and justice, an unyielding rebel against the restraints that nature and society place upon our humanity, he celebrated beauty and strength with a pagan recklessness wild as the winds and waves which he loved. Dionysus was his god and Aphrodite his goddess, and he joined their headlong votaries, scornfully defiant of those current deities who, as he felt, had despoiled life of youth and color and joy. Pay the price which a hostile fate requires, but let not its presageful shadow rob you of the moment. This defiance of accepted codes, of kings and priests, cost Swinburne the laureateship, to which his poetical gifts entitled him upon the death of Tennyson.
Yet he was an intense patriot, who believed that, underneath the conventions that seek to stifle it, the English spirit is essentially freedom-loving, and his last poems voice his belief that England is, as of old, the safeguard of liberty.
In striking contrast to his characteristic defiance and restlessness, are the precious and infinitely tender poems of child-life, the pathetic hunger of age for the innocence and perennial purity and freshness of childhood.
No other English poet has approached Swinburne in the complexity and music of his verse and the command of forms from the simplest to the most intricate. He seems to have exhausted the possibilities in this respect, and free verse was the only alternative left to a new school which sought distinction.
Of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) his friend, W. E. Henley, has said it all in his oft-quoted sonnet :
“Thin-legged, thin-chested, slight unspeakably,
Neat-footed and weak-fingered: in his face -
If ever a man had the right to pen An A pology for Idlers or to discuss life and death in terms of one another, that man was Stevenson, for he had learned how to turn fruitful idleness to richest account in after-periods of intense industry, and he played the sportsman's game of life with Death across the table for upwards of forty years.
THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY ing phenomena they strain or curtail to
suit the theory. For this purpose it is THE ROMANCE OF HISTORY not necessary that they should assert
what is absolutely false; for all questions The best historians of later times have in morals and politics are questions of been seduced from truth, not by their im- comparison and degree. Any proposition agination, but by their reason. They far which does not involve a contradiction in excel their predecessors in the art of de- terms may by possibility be true; and if ducing general principles from facts. But all the circumstances which raise a probunhappily they have fallen into the error of ability in its favor be stated and enforced, distorting facts to suit general principles. and those which lead to an opposite conThey arrive at a theory from looking at clusion be omitted or lightly passed over, some of the phenomena; and the remain- it may appear to be demonstrated. In
every human character and transaction in the habit of writing as if the world there is a mixture of good and evil : a had learned nothing new during the last little exaggeration, a little suppression, sixteen hundred years. Instead of illusa judicious use of epithets, a watchful and trating the events which they narrated by searching scepticism with respect to the the philosophy of a more enlightened evidence on one side, a convenient credu- age, they judged of antiquity by itself lity with respect to every report or tradi- alone. They seemed to think that notion on the other, may easily make a tions, long driven from every other corner saint of Laud, or a tyrant of Henry IV. literature, had a prescriptive right to
This species of misrepresentation occupy this last fastness. They conabounds in the most valuable works of sidered all the ancient historians as equally modern historians. Herodotus tells his authentic. They scarcely made any disstory like a slovenly witness, who, heated tinction between him who related events by partialities and prejudices, unac- at which he had himself been present and quainted with the established rules of him who five hundred years after composed evidence, and uninstructed as to the a philosophic romance for a society which obligations of his oath, confounds what had in the interval undergone a complete he imagines with what he has seen and change. It was all Greek, and all true! heard, and brings out facts, reports, con- The centuries which separated Plutarch jectures, and fancies, in one mass. Hume from Thucydides seemed as nothing to is an accomplished advocate. Without men who lived in an age so remote. The positively asserting much more than he distance of time produced an error similar can prove, he gives prominence to all the to that which is sometimes produced by circumstances which support his case; distance of place. There are many good he glides lightly over those which are un- ladies who think that all the people in favourable to it; his own witnesses are ap- India live together, and who charge a plauded and encouraged; the statements friend setting out for Calcutta with kind which seem to throw discredit on them are messages to Bombay. To Rollin and Barcontroverted; the contradictions into thelemi, in the same manner, all the which they fall are explained away; a classics were contemporaries. clear and connected abstract of their evi- Mr. Mitford certainly introduced great dence is given. Everything that is offered improvements; he showed us that men on the other side is scrutinized with the who wrote in Greek and Latin sometimes utmost severity; every suspicious cir- told lies; he showed us that ancient hiscumstance is a ground for comment and tory might be related in such a manner invective; what cannot be denied is as to furnish not only allusions to schoolextenuated, or passed by without notice; boys, but important lessons to statesmen. concessions even are sometimes made: From that love of theatrical effect and but this insidious candour only increases high-flown sentiment which had poisoned the effect of the vast mass of sophistry. almost every other work on the same sub
We have mentioned Hume as the ablest ject his book is perfectly free. But his and most popular writer of his class; but passion for a theory as false, and far more the charge which we have brought against ungenerous, led him substantially to viohim is one to which all our most dis- late truth in every page. Statements tinguished historians are in some degree unfavourable to democracy are made with obnoxious. Gibbon, in particular, de- unhesitating confidence, and with the serves very severe censure. Of all the utmost bitterness of language. Every numerous culprits, however, none is more charge brought against a monarch or an deeply guilty than Mr. Mitford. We will- aristocracy is sifted with the utmost care. ingly acknowledge the obligations which If it cannot be denied, some palliating are due to his talents and industry. The
supposition is suggested; or we are at modern historians of Greece had been, least reminded that some circumstances now unknown may have justified what serious consideration of historians. Volat present appears unjustifiable. Two taire's Charles the Twelfth, Marmontel's events are reported by the same author in Memoirs, Boswell's life of Johnson, Souththe same sentence; their truth rests on ey's account of Nelson, are perused with the same testimony; but the one supports delight by the most frivolous and indolent. the darling hypothesis, and the other seems Whenever any tolerable book of the same inconsistent with it. The one is taken and description makes it appearance, the cirthe other is left.
culating libraries are mobbed; the book The practice of distorting narrative societies are in commotion ; the new novel into a conformity with theory is a vice lies uncut; the magazines and newsnot so unfavourable as at first sight it may papers fill their columns with extracts. appear to the interests of political science. In the meantime histories of great emWe have compared the writers who in- pires, written by men of eminent ability, dulge in it to advocates; and we may add lie unread on the shelves of ostentatious that their conflicting fallacies, like those libraries. of advocates, correct each other. It has The writers of history seem to enteralways been held, in the most enlightened tain an aristocratical contempt for the nations, that a tribunal will decide a writers of memoirs. They think it bejudicial question most fairly when it has neath the dignity of men who describe heard two able men argue, as unfairly the revolutions of nations to dwell on the as possible, on the two opposite sides of details which constitute the charm of it; and we are inclined to think that this biography. They have imposed on themopinion is just. Sometimes, it is true, selves a code of conventional decencies as superior eloquence and dexterity will make absurd as that which has been the bane the worse appear the better reason; but of the French drama. The most characit is at least certain that the judge will be teristic and interesting circumstances are compelled to contemplate the case under omitted or softened down, because, as two different aspects. It is certain that are told, they are too trivial for no important consideration will altogether the majesty of history. The majesty of escape notice.
history seems to resemble the majesty of This is at present the state of history. the poor King of Spain, who died a martyr The poet laureate appears for the Church to ceremony because the proper dignitaries of England, Lingard for the Church of were not at hand to render him assistance. Rome. Brodie has moved to set aside That history would be more amusing if the verdicts obtained by Hume; and the this etiquette were relaxed will, we supcause in which Mitford succeeded is, we pose, be acknowledged. But would it be understand, about to be reheard. In the less dignified or less useful? What do midst of these disputes, however, history we mean when we say that one past event proper, if we may use the term, is dis- is important and another insignificant ? appearing. The high, grave, impartial No past event has any intrinsic imporsumming up of Thucydides is nowhere tance. The knowledge of it is valuable to be found.
only as it leads us to form just calculaWhile our historians are practising all tions with respect to the future. A histhe arts of controversy, they miserably tory which does not serve this purpose, neglect the art of narration, the art of though it may be filled with battles, interesting the affections and presenting treaties, and commotions, is as useless as pictures to the imagination. That a writer the series of turnpike tickets collected may produce these effects without vio- by Sir Matthew Mite. lating truth is sufficiently proved by many Let us suppose that Lord Clarendon, excellent biographical works. The im- instead of filling hundreds of folio pages mense popularity which well-written books with copies of state papers in which the of this kind have acquired deserves the same assertions and contradictions are