Points of View
By Miss Repplier.
BOOKS AND MEN. 16mo, gilt top, $1.25.
POINTS OF VIEW. 16mo, gilt top, $1.25.
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO.
Boston and New York.
POINTS OF VIEW
BOSTON AND NEW YORK
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY
The Riverside Press, Cambridge
By AGNES REPPLIER.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Company.
|A Plea for Humor||1|
|Books that have Hindered Me||64|
|Fiction in the Pulpit||105|
|Pleasure: a Heresy||136|
|English Railway Fiction||209|
“Scanderbeg” is reprinted from “The Catholic World”by permission of the publishers.
POINTS OF VIEW.
A PLEA FOR HUMOR.
More than half a dozen years have passedsince Mr. Andrew Lang, startled for once outof his customary light-heartedness, asked himself,and his readers, and the ghost of CharlesDickens—all three powerless to answer—whetherthe dismal seriousness of the presentday was going to last forever; or whether,when the great wave of earnestness had rippledover our heads, we would pluck up heart to bemerry and, if needs be, foolish once again.Not that mirth and folly are in any degreesynonymous, as of old; for the merry fool,too scarce, alas, even in the times when Jackeof Dover hunted for him in the highways, hassince then grown to be rarer than a phœnix.He has carried his cap and bells, and jestsand laughter, elsewhere, and has left us to the2mercies of the serious fool, who is by nomeans so seductive a companion. If the Cocquecigruësare in possession of the land, and ifthey are tenants exceedingly hard to evict,it is because of the connivance and encouragementthey receive from those to whom we innocentlyturn for help: from the poets, andnovelists, and men of letters, whose plain dutyit is to brighten and make glad our days.
“It is obvious,” sighs Mr. Birrell dejectedly,“that many people appear to like adrab-colored world, hung around with duskyshreds of philosophy;” but it is more obviousstill that, whether they like it or not, thedrapings grow a trifle dingier every year, andthat no one seems to have the courage to tackup something gay. What is much worse,even those bits of wanton color which haverested generations of weary eyes are beingrapidly obscured by sombre and intricatescroll-work, warranted to oppress and fatigue.The great masterpieces of humor, which havekept men young by laughter, are being triedin the courts of an orthodox morality, andfound lamentably wanting; or else, by way ofgiving them another chance, they are being3subjected to the peine forte et dure of modernanalysis, and are revealing hideous andmelancholy meanings in the process. I havealways believed that Hudibras owes its chillytreatment at the hands of critics—with thesingle and most genial exception of Sainte-Beuve—tothe absolute impossibility of twistingit into something serious. Strive as wemay, we cannot put a new construction onthose vigorous old jokes, and to be simply andbarefacedly amusing is no longer considereda sufficient raison d’être. It is the most significanttoken of our ever-increasing “senseof moral responsibility in literature” that weshould be always trying to graft our own conscientiouspurposes upon those authors who,happily for themselves, lived and died beforevirtue, colliding desperately with cakes andale, had imposed such depressing obligations.
“Don Quixote,” says Mr. Shorthouse withunctuous gravity, “will come in time to berecognized as one of the saddest books everwritten;” and, if the critics keep on expoundingit much longer, I truly fear it will. Itmay be urged that Cervantes himself was lowenough to think it exceedingly funny; but4then one advantage of our new and keenerinsight into literature is to prove to us howindifferently great authors understood theirown masterpieces. Shakespeare, we are told,knew comparatively little about Hamlet, andhe is to be congratulated on his limitations.Defoe would hardly recognize Robinson Crusoeas “a picture of civilization,” having innocentlysupposed it to be quite the reverse;and he would be as amazed as we are to learnfrom Mr. Frederic Harrison that his bookcontains “more psychology, more politicaleconomy, and more anthropology than are tobe found in many elaborate treatises on theseespecial subjects,”—blighting words whichI would not even venture to quote if I thoughtthat any boy would chance to read them, andso have one of the pleasures of his young lifedestroyed. As for Don Quixote, which itsauthor persisted in regarding with such misplacedlevity, it has passed through many bewilderingvicissitudes. It has figured bravelyas a satire on the Duke of Lerma, on CharlesV., on Philip II., on Ignatius Loyola,—Cervanteswas the most devout of Catholics,—andon the Inquisition, which, fortunately, did5not think so. In fact, there is little or nothingwhich it has not meant in its time; andnow, having attained that deep spiritual inwardnesswhich we have been recently told islacking in poor Goldsmith, we are requestedby Mr. Shorthouse to refrain from all brutallaughter, but, with a shadowy smile and aprofound seriousness, to attune ourselves tothe proper state of receptivity. Old-fashioned,coarse-minded people may perhaps ask, “Butif we are not to laugh at Don Quixote, atwhom are we, please, to laugh?”—a questionwhich I, for one, would hardly dare toanswer. Only, after reading the followingcurious sentence, extracted from a lately publishedvolume of criticism, I confess to findingmyself in a state of mental perplexity, utterlyalien to mirth. “How much happier,” itsauthor sternly reminds us, “was poor DonQuixote in his energetic career, in his earnestredress of wrong, and in his ultimate triumphover self, than he could have been in the gnawingreproach and spiritual stigma which ayielding to weakness never failingly entails!”Beyond this point it would be hard to go.Were these things really spoken of the “ingenious6gentleman” of La Mancha, or ofJohn Howard, or George Peabody, or perhapsElizabeth Fry,—or is there no longersuch a thing as a recognized absurdity in theworld?
Another gloomy indication of the departureof humor from our midst is the tendency ofphilosophical writers to prove by analysis that,if they are not familiar with the thing itself,they at least know of what it should consist.Mr. Shorthouse’s depressing views about DonQuixote are merely introduced as illustratinga very scholarly and comfortless paper on thesubtle qualities of mirth. No one could dealmore gracefully and less humorously with histopic than does Mr. Shorthouse, and we arecompelled to pause every now and then andreassure ourselves as to the subject matter ofhis eloquence. Professor Everett has morerecently and more cheerfully defined for usthe Philosophy of the Comic, in a way which,if it does not add to our gayety, cannot be accusedof plunging us deliberately into gloom.He thinks, indeed,—and small wonder,—thatthere is “a genuine difficulty in distinguishingbetween the comic and the tragic,” and7that what we need is some formula which shallaccurately interpret the precise qualities ofeach; and he is disposed to illustrate his theoryby dwelling on the tragic side of Falstaff, whichis, of all injuries, the grimmest and hardest toforgive. Falstaff is now the forlorn hope ofthose who love to laugh, and when he is takenaway from us, as soon, alas! he will be, andsleeps with Don Quixote in the “dull coldmarble” of an orthodox sobriety, how shall wemake merry our souls? Mr. George Radford,who enriched the first volume of “ObiterDicta” with such a loving study of the fat-wittedold knight, tells us reassuringly that bylaughter man is distinguished from the beasts,though the cares and sorrows of life have allbut deprived him of this elevating grace, anddegraded him into a brutal solemnity. Thencomes along a rare genius like Falstaff, whorestores the power of laughter, and transformsthe stolid brute once more into a man, andwho accordingly has the highest claim to ourgrateful and affectionate regard. That thereare those who persist in looking upon himas a selfish and worthless fellow is, from Mr.Radford’s point of view, a sorrowful instance8of human thanklessness and perversity. Butthis I take to be the enamored and exaggeratedlanguage of a too faithful partisan. Morallyspeaking, Falstaff has not a leg to standupon, and there is a tragic element lurkingalways amid the fun. But, seen in the broadsunlight of his transcendent humor, thisshadow is as the half-pennyworth of bread tohis own noble ocean of sack, and why shouldwe be forever trying to force it into prominence?When Charlotte Brontë advised herfriend, Ellen Nussey, to read none of Shakespeare’scomedies, she was not beguiled for amoment into regarding them as serious andmelancholy lessons of life; but with uncompromisingdirectness put them down as mereimproper plays, the amusing qualities of whichwere insufficient to excuse their coarseness,and which were manifestly unfit for the “gentleEllen’s” eyes.
In fact, humor would at all times have beenthe poorest excuse to offer to Miss Brontëfor any form of moral dereliction, for it wasthe one quality she lacked herself, and failedto tolerate in others. Sam Weller was apparentlyas obnoxious to her as was Falstaff,9for she would not even consent to meetDickens, when she was being lionized in Londonsociety,—a degree of abstemiousnesson her part which it is disheartening to contemplate.It does not seem too much to saythat every shortcoming in Charlotte Brontë’sadmirable work, every limitation of her splendidgenius, arose primarily from her wantof humor. Her severities of judgment—andwho more severe than she?—were dueto the same melancholy cause; for humoris the kindliest thing alive. Compare theharshness with which she handles her haplesscurates, and the comparative crudity ofher treatment, with the surpassing lightnessof Miss Austen’s touch as she rounds andcompletes her immortal clerical portraits.Miss Brontë tells us, in one of her letters, thatshe regarded all curates as “highly uninteresting,narrow, and unattractive specimens ofthe coarser sex,” just as she found all theBelgian school-girls “cold, selfish, animal, andinferior.” But to Miss Austen’s keen andfriendly eye the narrowest of clergymen wasnot wholly uninteresting, the most inferior ofschool-girls not without some claim to our consideration;10even the coarseness of the malesex was far from vexing her maidenly serenity,probably because she was unacquaintedwith the Rochester type. Mr. Elton is certainlynarrow, Mary Bennet extremely inferior;but their authoress only laughs at themsoftly, with a quiet tolerance, and a good-naturedsense of amusement at their follies.It was little wonder that Charlotte Brontë,who had at all times the courage of her convictions,could not, and would not, read JaneAusten’s novels. “They have not got storyenough for me,” she boldly affirmed. “Idon’t want my blood curdled, but I like tohave it stirred. Miss Austen strikes me asmilk-and-watery, and, to say truth, as dull.”Of course she did! How was a woman, whoseideas of after-dinner conversation are embodiedin the amazing language of Baroness Ingramand her titled friends, to appreciate thedelicious, sleepy small talk, in “Sense and Sensibility,”about the respective heights of the respectivegrandchildren? It is to Miss Brontë’sabiding lack of humor that we owe suchstately caricatures as Blanche Ingram, and allthe high-born, ill-bred company who gather11in Thornfield Hall, like a group fresh fromMadame Tussaud’s ingenious workshop, andagainst whose waxen unreality Jane Eyre andRochester, alive to their very finger-tips, contrastlike twin sparks of fire. It was her lackof humor, too, which beguiled her into assertingthat the forty “wicked, sophistical,and immoral French novels,” which foundtheir way down to lonely Haworth, gave her“a thorough idea of France and Paris,”—alas,poor misjudged France!—and which madeher think Thackeray very