The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
THE LITERATURE OF THE VICTORIAN ERA.
By H. D. Traill.
WE LIVE IN a century whose praise as an “age of progress” has been in all the newspapers for at least the last fifty years; and it is therefore rather curious to find ourselves only just realising that the tributes of respectful congratulation which we have so long been in the habit of paying to it are in reality compliments to the address of the Victorian Era. For that is the actual fact. The early years of the century were marked by the gradual ebb of the Revolutionary tide, and they were followed by a still longer period of “slack water.” From 1815 onward for wellnigh twenty years there was little movement anywhere, except for about the first quarter of that period, in English poetry, and even there this impulse had been given, and was already splendidly expanding in the last century. Early in the twenties, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge had either ceased to live or ceased to sing; and, save that they witnessed Scott’s last heroic efforts as a romancer, the years which intervened between the death of Byron and the Queen’s Accession are by far the leanest years, in the literary sense, that the century has recorded. And though many of the great material triumphs of the age had already been constructively won; though steam locomotion by sea and land had been discovered and applied; though electric telegraphy had already a potential existence in the brains of its pioneers, and was, indeed, within a year or two of coming into actual being; though, in short, it might be possible to trace many of the dominant forces and overshadowing facts of the present day to beginnings of earlier date than the Queen’s Accession, we can hardly on that account dispute the claim of the Victorian Era to reckon these great facts and forces among its products.
As regards its great literary facts, however, and its spiritual and intellectual forces, the case is clearer still. Here it stands forth, patent and undeniable, that the fifteen years or so which preceded the demise of the Crown from William IV. to his niece, were one of the flattest and least productive periods in the annals of English letters; and that, strangely enough, with the succession of the young Queen, a revival set in which, before it had spent itself, carried our literature in at least two of its greatest branches to the highest point touched by it in the whole of her sixty years of reign. The great age of the Romantic and Naturalist movement in English poetry, though its chief triumphs were achieved in the present century, has always been associated in the imagination of posterity with the century which begat it—the last; and if we exclude these triumphs, the literature of the ninteenth century will mean exclusively the literature of the Victorian Era.
It is curious to remark how plainly this comes out on a comparison of a few names and dates. In the years which elapsed between the death of Byron and the publication of the volume which first established Tennyson’s reputation, the poetic deities of English idolatry were Mrs. Hemans and L. E. L. For prose of the serious order we were a little better off; but even here the respectable names of Hallam and Thirlwall stand rather for learning and judgment than for literary genius; while the great historians and essayists by whom the century will be remembered had either not yet begun to write or had still to make their mark. Macaulay in 1825 had indeed established his footing on the Edinburgh Review, and had written the earlier of his essays; but the latter and greater of them, the “Temple,” the “Clive,” the “Pitt,” and the “Chatham,” and, above all, the “Warren Hastings,” had yet to come, and the vast design of the History of England was still unplanned. Carlyle, it is true, had in Sartor Resartus produced what is undoubtedly one of the greatest of his works; but the French Revolution, on which his title to fame is more securely based, was still struggling against “gods averse, and fortune, and the fiery feet of change” (or at any rate the fiery hands of Mr. Mill’s housemaid), for publication, and did not actually get itself published until the very year when Her Majesty ascended the throne. Mr. Ruskin in that year was still at Christchurch, and Mr. Froude was sitting at the feet of Newman as an undergraduate at Oriel. Matthew Arnold was at school at Rugby, Rossetti had not yet been entered at King’s College, Mr. Swinburne was a little over two months old.
As to fiction, at the death of Byron in 1824 nearly all the finest of Scott’s work was done. The sun of his genius having touched its zenith during the seven years which divide the Heart of Midlothian from Quentin Durward, was, during the eight years which preceded his death, declining towards the pathetic nadir of Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous; and from Scott’s death to the Queen’s Accession the English public had to subsist on the romances of Bulwer Lytton’s first (and stagiest) manner, and the earlier—that is, the non-political and therefore less individual and characteristic—novels of Disraeli. But the first year of the new reign brought before the public a new novelist, who was to make for himself the most famous name in the fiction of the Victorian Era. Pickwick, by a happy chance, was published in 1837. The best and freshest of Dicken’s novels followed one another in pretty quick succession during the next decade. Thackeray began several years later, and was a far less fertile writer; but his activity during the forties and early fifties was considerable, and his not very long career was full of achievement.
On the whole, and taking all descriptions of English literature together, it is impossible in any survey of the Victorian Era not to be struck, and even dazzled, by the splendour of its beginning. If we take only the seven great names of Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Macaulay, Dickens, Thackeray, and Ruskin, and examine the best of their works between 1837 an 1857, we shall find ourselves reviewing a twenty years’ record which it would be hard to match from any other period of our history. For between these two limiting years English literature was enriched by the first of these illustrious writers with the Poems of 1842, The Princess, In Memoriam, and Maud; by the second with Bells and Pomegranates, Christmas Eve and Easter Day, and Men and Women, three poems containing among them some of the finest of his work; by the third with The French Revolution, Past and Present, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, The Latter Day Pamphlets, and that little biographical masterpiece, the Life of Sterling; by the fourth with the finest of his Essays, with the spirited, and, in their way, never yet equalled, Lays of Ancient Rome, and with the first four volumes of the great, Whiggish, rhetorical, unscrupulous, but surely immortal history; by the fifth with Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Little Dorrit; by the sixth with Barry Lyndon, Vanity Fair, Pendennis, The Newcomes, and Esmond; and by the seventh with Modern Painters, the Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stones of Venice.
HERE ARE THIRTY-THREE works, in prose and poetry, which, with a few exceptions—certainly not more than half a dozen at most—on which opinion is divided, rank among the admitted masterpieces of their authors, themselves acknowledged as supreme masters of the literary art; and assuredly the reign which during its first twenty years witnessed these productions need fear no comparison with the most famous periods of English history. These two decades alone suffice to stamp the Victorian era as memorable in the annals of our literature; and undoubtedly their record far surpasses that of the two decades which immediately followed. From 1857 to 1877 the tide of literary production, or, at any rate, of high literary achievement, was pretty steadily receding. Thackeray died ere the period had run much more than a quarter of its course. Before 1857 Dickens had already given the world of his best, and after that year he wrote nothing, with the doubtful exception of Great Expectations, which was at all worthy of his genius at its best. Macaulay died in 1859; Carlyle was already locked in that deadly struggle with Frederick the Great which was to last to the end of his career. In poetry this slackening was less perceptible, so far as the poets already in full song are concerned; for if these years were marked by a slight decline of the Tennysonian standard—since we can hardly put Enoch Arden or The Idylls, high as is their technical excellence, on the level of In Memoriam—it was, on the other hand, in 1864 that Browning succeeded for the first time in gripping the public with The Ring and the Book. On the whole, however, it can hardly, I think, be denied that the twenty years in question—the second of the three periods into which the reign divides itself—was far the least distinguished of the three. It is true that some of the appearances presented by it are to a certain extent deceptive—that it is possible here and there to mistake for sterility what was really only the repose of germination; and that we must not forget that the seeds of new growths in literature cannot be quickened unless they die—or seem to do so. On this side of the subject there is a word or two to be said later on. But there is no denying that everything “that moved in the world” during the sixties and seventies appeared to offer a standing contradiction to the memorable saying of Sir Henry Maine. Nothing seemed to be “Greek” among the great mass of Englishmen—if Greek be another name for the spiritual, the intellectual, the artistic; but everything material with that kind of materiality which provoked the urbane raillery of Mr. Matthew Arnold.
For in the sixties, which was the date of Mr. Arnold’s “floruit” as a censor of Philistinism, we were in the full tide of our commercial and industrial prosperity, and it so happened that the disproportion between the change in our surroundings and the change in ourselves which the new era had brought about was becoming rather disquietingly noticeable. There was the sting of truth in the Arnoldian gibe at that immense development of railway communication which only supplied a dull and sordid community with facilities for the more frequent and rapid interchange of a dull and sordid life in one locality for a life of the same description in another. Many a youth still in bondage to Philistia, and perhaps never destined to be wholly emancipated—many a young barbarian then at play, and then (and afterwards) apt to regard the author of Essays in Criticism as something of a fribble—was secretly more moved by his sarcasms than it was agreeable to admit, and felt uneasily conscious that although its virtues, as a political system, might be considerable, yet that in its response to the intellectual and artistic aspirations the rule of “the tenpound householder” left something to be desired.
It is not for me to throw stones at that worthy but unappreciated citizen. I would far rather save them to build a cairn over his neglected grave. It has always seemed to me that though the Fates denied him a fair trial as a ruler, he did not do at all badly with the limited opportunities allowed him in a reign of barely five and thirty years, and that if his government of England did not quite deserve Mr. Lowe’s enthusiastic admiration, one may at any rate say of its period that, politically speaking, “the world went very well them.” But it was “politically speaking” only; or that and “politico-economically,” so to speak—commercially and industrially, that is to say; and in whatever tends to the mere accumulation of riches rather than to the judgment and taste in the employment of them. Candour must compel even the most loyal Toryism to admit that if the advance of the nation in material prosperity between 1837 and 1867 had been remarkable, there had been nothing like a corresponding development of the higher faculties of the people. The elevation of the ten-pound householder to the seat of power from which he had dislodged the territorial oligarchy to “borough-mongers” had not sensibly widened his horizons. He had remained the shrewd practical “common sensible” but idea-less, unimaginative, uncritical bourgeois that he had been during his period of political nonage. His aesthetic ideals were the expression of a sober enthusiasm for the commonplace. He bowed before a few great names and established reputations such as those of a Dickens, a Thackeray, or a Tennyson; but in poetry his heart was always with Tupper; and as for fiction, he gave the true measure of his appreciation of the immortal caricaturist and the immortal satirist by enthroning at their side a journey-worker in conventional realism, in the person of Mr. Anthony Trollope, and making him the most popular and widely read novelist of the middle Victorian era.
In art he still clung with pathetic fidelity to those painters of the forties whose unearthed masterpieces gave many of us “such a turn” at the Hanoverian Exhibition a few years ago; and the pre-Raphaelite movement of the fifties had as yet only so far affected him as to beget a benevolent disposition to welcome back the clever young artistic prodigals to the deserted hearth of Convention as soon as they showed, as most of them and all the successful ones promptly did show, a desire to return to it. As for the history of his domestic architecture, his women’s costume, his furniture, and his objects of decorative art in general, is it not written in brick and stucco over many a mile of London streets and suburban common, and in black and white over many an early Du Maurier in the pages of Punch?
Aesthetically, as we know, the salvation of these lost sheep is supposed to have been wrought by the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their successors. The history of their redemption has been many times related—sometimes with more than a touch of the romantic—and it need not be recounted here. The movement which Rossetti, Mr. Holman Hunt, and others initiated in art, and which the late William Morris, after directing it into literary channels, boldly attempted to carry into the industrial world, may really be entitled to the honour, now always claimed for it, of having rescued British aesthetic from the abysmal depths to which it had sunk; but the process was a mighty slow one. It was early in the fifties that the prophets began to lift up their voice, and the seventies were certainly waning before their gospel so much as began to be accepted. The curious period of the so-called “aesthete”—of Bunthorne on the stage and of Maudle and Postlethwaite in pictorial satire—was even later still. This conflict between the exaggerations of the new and the prejudices of the old did not reach its height, in fact, till we were well into the eighties; and we may fairly regard the conversion of the great English middle class to what they now profoundly believe to be the true faith in matters of art, architecture, bric-à-brac, and upholstery, as an event not much, it at all, more than fifteen years old.
Literature during the two decades in question presents the same appearance of “hanging in the wind.” With the single, if the splendid, exception of Mr. Swinburne, the period not only produced no new poet of supreme genius, but brought forth none with any pretensions to a place in the first rank. For this Mr. Swinburne himself is, in part, undoubtedly though innocently responsible. The charm of that new voice was so irresistible that for years upon years there was nothing to be heard from the lips of any younger singer but its echo. Its influence for a long time superseded that of Tennyson, but only in the sense of raising another and larger crop of the merest imitators. Rossetti’s remarkable poems, written before the second period of the reign commenced, but not published till 1870, form no true exception to the above generalisation; nor, of course, does Matthew Arnold’s second issue of poems, composed, most of them, much earlier in 1867. This middle section of the Victorian Era remains singularly barren of new and original poetic genius.
In fiction, it is true, it was marked at its very commencement by an event of no little importance in the history of literature—the apparition of the author of Adam Bede. But though George Eliot’s advent and instant appreciation may, at first sight, appear to retrieve in some degree the literary credit of the period, we should be careful not to mistake the approval of the critical and cultured English society for a popular pronouncement. The middle Victorian era is not really the age of Tennyson in poetry and George Eliot in prose fiction; it is the age of Trollope as a novelist and of Martin Tupper as a poet. It would, of course, not be quite fair to the former of these writers to couple them together without any qualification or distinguishing word, and it is not meant that they should be so coupled here. In the first place, though the vogue of the latter lasted well into this second period of the reign, it can hardly be said to have endured to the end of it. Nevertheless, it was a still surviving phenomenon of the time, and a marvellous one indeed. It requires a strong effort of the imagination to realise the fact that the years during which Proverbial Philosophy was going steadily through its forty editions and accumulating a handsome fortune for its author, were also years during which Tennyson was producing, not perhaps his finest nor certainly his least appreciated work, but at any rate work of which, if one cannot say that its approving public was as much smaller as its poetic merits were greater than that and those of Tupper, it is only because finite and infinite differences cannot be compared. There was, however, no mistaking the fact—as those who are old enough for such memories will recollect—that though the author of In Memoriam and Maud was respectfully considered by the great middle class, it was to the author of that interminable series of pious platitudes cut into unequal lengths, which he had named Proverbial Philosophy, and might, with equal propriety, have given any other name under heaven, that their real hearts went out.
The immense vogue of Trollope, on the other hand, was, of course, supported by literary merits to which Tupper could lay no sort of claim. It would be not only unjust but absurd to deny recognition to this. There is a genuine vein of satirical observation running through the earlier works of the author of the “Barsetshire” series of novels which earned those studies a deserved popularity. But it was essentially and in every sense a thin vein; it was neither broad nor deep. Trollope knew only one class of our countrymen well, and he did not know them much below the surface. All that there was of freshness and originality in his work was exhausted before his immense reputation was established; yet his popularity not only lasted but continued to grow for the better part of twenty years, and the more mechanical his work became, the more eagerly was it accepted by his public. It is sometimes said that he injured his posthumous fame by the imprudent frankness with which he described his mode of novel writing—so many pages exactly per diem, almost per horam: never any more because he felt in the vein, never any less because the stuff was coming out in inferior quality and production had better be deferred till a happier moment. It was, indeed, a singular and singularly naïf confession; but I doubt whether it could possibly have done the confessor any harm, for the reason that no critical reader of Trollope’s can ever, I should think, have imagined that his novels, with the exception of the two or three earlier ones, were turned out in any other way. No one mistakes a barrel organ for an organ with a keyboard, especially when the hand of the performer is visible, and it is observed that he is not touching notes, but simply turning a handle. There was no sign of life or spontaneity about any of the later Trollopes, and his public, or the great bulk of his public, did not want any. They were happier without it. It was enough for them to gaze year after year upon that never-ending series of social photographs, each of them indistinguishable, save by the merest superficial differences, from the last. And it may be seriously questioned whether, despite his admitted superiority to Tupper, the idolatry of Trollope, having regard to the quality of the worshippers and profundity of their devotion, was not an even more discouraging sign of the literary times than was the following of the Proverbial Philosopher. For poetry never has been, and never will be, appreciable by more than a few; while prose, and especially prose fiction, finds, or should find, a sufficient body of competent ocrity points, therefore, to a much lower average of taste in the case of novel writing than in that of poetry.
From 1860 to 1870, and for some years afterwards, we find ourselves surveying a literary period which does not exactly arouse emotions of pride. “O middle-class! so good, so great, so wise!” Mr. Lowe was represented by some satirical publicist of his day—I am not sure that it was not Mr. Frederic Harrison—as ejaculating; and I have before this maintained that there was more to be said, politically speaking, for his eulogies than the pert Radicalism of that day was willing to admit. But I am afraid we must confess that it was politically speaking only. Mr. Lowe himself—an excellent scholar who systematically belittled scholarship, and made it his business on all occasions to uphold the vulgarest and most material conceptions of national life—was himself no unfair representative of this class in its non-political aspect. Whatever might have been the arguments against the wholesale democratization of the franchise in 1867, and for the transfusion of such an enormous dose of new blood into the electoral system, it is difficult even for the staunchest of literary Tories to deny that the nation sadly needed a freshening of the springs of its intellectual and spiritual life.
IT IS NOT easy to fix the precise year in which the change set in. The division of the Victorian Era into three periods of twenty years, each marked by its own peculiar literary characteristics, is, of course, only roughly and approximately correct. Its substantial accuracy, therefore, will not be affected by showing that the periods overlap, or that in each of them there may be found isolated representatives of literary tendencies or literary genres which belong more distinctively to one of the others. Broadly speaking, the first twenty years of the Queen’s reign were years of great fertility and of really magnificent achievements in literature. New and great schools of fiction were founded; immortal poems and a history which will live for the lover of letters after it perishes for the student were given to the world; and all this with a rapidity which was almost bewildering and a wealth which overwhelmed. So, again, we are justified in reckoning the second period as a stationary if not a retrogressive one. The splendid but single apparition of Mr. Swinburne must not dazzle us into a hallucinatory vision of these two decades as rich in poetic genius. On the contrary, it was, so far as poetry was concerned, essentially a barren and imitative time. Nor can the flat commonplace of the Trollopian fiction, which, as has been said, was the dominant fiction of the period, be regarded as redeemed by the brilliant work of Charles Reade, a novelist who, in The Cloister and the Hearth, revealed a more direct and potent inspiration from the spirit of historical romance than had been displayed since the death of Scott. Nor yet can the favour shown to the too brief series of Charles Kingsley’s novels, and to those of his brother, picturesque and dramatic as they were, be fairly set off against the overshadowing popularity of the author of Barchester Towers. The elder Kingsley early quitted the field of romantic fiction; the younger continued writing with fair acceptance, but no more; and Reade, though he always commanded a considerable circle of interested readers, never attained to anything like the high estimation which his great literary gifts deserved. If any one can be said to have divided the admiration of the great public with Anthony Trollope, it was Wilkie Collins, an ingenious inventor of plots and puzzles, but, except in one of his novels, a feeble delineator of character and a writer absolutely lacking in distinction of style. Throughout nearly the whole of the second period of the Victorian Era these two novelists may be considered as having respectively satisfied their countrymen’s steady affection for commonplace Realism and their occasional yearnings after the transpontine Ideal. One need not cast about for any severer criticism on the taste of the time than is implied in this simple statement.
No doubt the reaction would have come in any case, though no doubt also it would have been less powerful but for the violent political changes which preceded it. It is fortunately not necessary to metamorphose an ancient constitution and hand over the destinies of a nation to the control of numbers, in order to induce its people to turn from the deadly dulness of the domestic novel and the mechanical effects of the sensation story to something which brought with it a breath from the too long-forgotten land of romance. The “instinct of self-preservation,” to use Mr. Arnold’s humorous name for the spirit of revolt against boredom, might have been trusted to look after the succession to Trollope; and the forerunner of the ensuing change may perhaps be discerned as early as 1869, when Mr. Blackmore gave to the world that somewhat rambling and loosely-constructed historical novel to which he gave so exquisitely romantic setting of scenery and movement, and adorned with such quaint but admirable literary art, in Lorna Doone. The speedy success of this finely imagined and cunningly written work gave good promise and augury for the future, which, however, can hardly be said to have had very speedy fulfilment. Mr. Blackmore, indeed, has never lost his hold upon his readers, if many of his later works have shown grave faults of construction—a branch of his art in which he was never strong—and the original charm of his manner has occasionally hardened into mannerism. Still, the decade from 1870 to 1880 had run full half its course before the degenerate tastes and tendencies of the sixties had exhausted themselves, and the appetite for a stronger and sincerer form of fiction had taken their place.
But from the middle of the seventies to the present time the art of the novelist has certainly displayed a vitality, a strength, a many-sided activity on which we may justly pride ourselves. On the general literary movement of this singular period there remains something to be said later on; but of this branch of it, at any rate, one can safely say that appearances are not, and cannot be, wholly deceptive, and that we may indulge our instinct of self-congratulation without misgiving. Within the period in question novelists of long standing but hitherto more inadequately valued powers, have attained to something like their due meed of recognition; new novelists of signal ability, one of them of a unique literary gift, have arisen within the period and acquired widespread fame; while the number of novelists who, without displaying the force and the range of the great masters has reached a total never approached before. If Dickens and Thackeray, as is often somewhat unthinkingly complained, have had no successors, it is not wholly due to the generally assumed fact that the leading novel-writers of the present day are so far below them in power; it is at least in part to be accounted for by the patent and indisputable fact that the particular genres in which these two great artists worked have practically ceased to exist. Comparison between two generations of athletes must be purely conjectural when the palaestra in which the men of the elder generation trained themselves has been closed. Nothing, in fact, is idler or more insidious than attempted parallels of this kind. The habit of drawing them is one of the weaknesses of the elderly critic, just as the equally gratuitous exaltation of the new over the old is one of the foibles of his younger confrère. Probably, indeed, the two habits react upon each other, and the extollers of the past and of the present reciprocally incite, and are incited, to extravagances of praise and depreciation.
Putting all this aside, it should be enough for a reviewer of contemporary and of recent English fiction to note the fact that the last twenty years has witnessed the at first gradual and latterly rapid elevation of Mr. Hardy to a foremost place among English novelists; the emergence of Mr. George Meredith from the shadow of an almost lifelong neglect, and his acclamation with an enthusiasm which in some of the enthusiasts is, it is to be feared, too vehement for sincerity; and the brief but brilliant career of Robert Louis Stevenson. The achievements of these three men during this period may, perhaps, not be—nay, are not—subjects of unqualified praise. In certain characteristics of their work, or of the reception given to their work, we may trace influences of the age which are not admirable to some of us, and from which we could have wished it to be free. It is irritating to note that the inspiration of Mr. Hardy’s finest and strongest novel is derived from that everlasting sex-problem which is just at present perverting and distorting all our literary ideals, and threatens to “narrow the mind” of the author of Tess and make his give up to the ewig weibliche what “was meant for mankind” in the broadly generic sense of the word—not vir any more than femina, but homo. So, too, it may not be without impatience that we find Mr. Meredith’s popularity aggravating the anfractuosities of his style and exciting the emulation of a whole school of imitators. Again, we may regret that far-sought and sometimes dear-bought exquisiteness of Stevenson’s phrase which has made it somewhat of a misleading lure to a generation already too apt to stray into the paths of preciosity. But with all this no unprejudiced critic can deny that these are three great names in the literature of English fiction, and that the period during which the bearers of them were all actively and successfully at work will hereafter ever be recognised as filling no obscure page in its annals.
Stevenson the youngest, and much younger than the eldest of the three—young enough, indeed, to have been his son—has naturally exercised the greatest influence. It is largely to the inspiration of his example that we owe the new romantic movement which, though like every new literary phenomenon of the time it has multiplied its manifestations of late years in an almost surfeiting abundance, has undoubtedly brought to light a vast amount of genuine literary talent and produced a proportionate quantity of vivid, picturesque, and in some instances powerful work. The new Romancers, indeed, even at the date of present writing, may still be said in comparison with any other class of fiction, to hold the field. The only serious competitors with the new Romancists in popularity are the members of what has been described in more of less good-humoured raillery as the “Kailyard” school—the little band of writers who, with Mr. J. M. Barrie at their head, have succeeded in securing a considerable English public for studies of Scottish life and character composed in the dialect of the country. It would be unjust to say of them, and indeed absurd as well as unjust to say of their leader that they owe their success to a passing popular fancy for the humours of Kirk elders and the lingo of the Lowland Scot; but it is of course obvious that a vogue which depends in any degree on the attractions of an unfamiliar language must necessarily be of a more or less capricious character, and is sure, sooner or later, to be displaced by some newer craze. Time may be trusted to sift out the Scotch novelists who are novelists first and masters of “the Dorie” afterwards from those with whom this order of procedure is reversed, and it will be interesting to note which of them will prove his substance and solidity as a writer by remaining in the sieve.
These two genres of fiction have, however, only been selected for special reference because of their distinctive and well-marked character. The general and truly extraordinary development of the art of novel writing may be more conveniently noticed as a part of the general and perhaps even more remarkable diffusion—we might almost say the popularization—of the power of literary expression. Assuming for a moment that the existence of this phenomenon is admitted, we should of course expect to find its presence most noticeable in that branch of literature where expression possesses its highest value and importance, or, in other words, in poetry. And it is there that the most striking evidences of the development of expressional power are, in fact, to be found.
That this subject lends itself too easily to ridicule I have the best reason to be aware. The world has been so much accustomed to regard poetry as a rare and priceless product of the human spirit that the notion of its receiving at any given time any considerable increment to its amount is almost as repugnant as it is incredible. Let me add that the enormous majority of mankind—enormous still despite the vast increase of its professed admirers—are far too insensible to poetry to have either the wish or the power to discriminate between its matter and its form, still less to measure the value of the latter element as a factor in the sum of poetic effect, and least of all to give anything like a competent opinion on the question how far the command of form up to that point of supreme mastery which poetry presupposes is acquirable by cultivation. Hence the tendency of this incurious and incompetent majority is to ignore the existence of a difficulty which they are unable to appreciate, and to rid themselves of the embarrassment of having to recognise and admit the poetic quality of a vast amount of the new poetry of the day by the short method of declaring that it differs from the genuine article in the presence or absence of some quality which they would find it mighty troublesome to define. Of course, if a man can see no difference between the so-called “minor” poetry of to-day and the “minor” so-called poetry of half, or even a quarter, or a century ago, there is no more to be said. If he does not feel that to descend from the great poets of the later Victorian Era to the dozens of others who are next to them in rank, seems little more to-day than descending from the summit of a mountain to one of its lower yet still lofty slopes; whereas to make that descent a generation ago was “to feel as if you had been kicked down a long flight of steps and had alighted in the Poets’ Corner of an obscure provincial newspaper”—if, I say, this difference of sensation is not within his experiences, it would be useless to discuss the question with him. We must at least start in this matter from the common ground of the admission that a vastly larger number of persons than was formerly the case have not only learnt the poetic language, but show the poet’s feeling for nature and the poet’s attitude towards human emotion. And this means that, poetry having ceased to be the rare and precious product of the human spirit that it was once held to be, we must face one or other of two conclusions: Either the title of poet must submit to an immense depreciation of honorific value, or else it must be reserved for those only who couple the faculty of poetic expression with exceptional intellectual force and spiritual depth, and with exceptional power and fertility of imagination.
In the case of contemporary prose literature the need for the enlargement of borders and the admission of claimants is, of course, infinitely greater, but here there is no necessity for readjustments of definitions. People are naturally less alarmed at the discovery of an enormous increase in the number of our prose writers than at an equal, or relatively equal, addition to the number of our poets. There is, indeed, no reason, they seem to think, why we should not all write our language with more than mere correctness—with grace, with colour, with eloquence, with rhythmical charm, in fact, with all the qualities which go to make up “literature.” And undoubtedly an astonishingly large number of people have actually learned to do so. It used to be a common reproach of average English novelist—especially of the lady novelist—that their style bewrayed them; and that whereas in France the execution even of the poorest romance had usually merit enough to assist the reader through its perusal, and even to blind him to the poverty of its matter until he had finished it, the reviewer of an inferior English novel usually obtained such early and certain indications of its inferiority in the amateurishness of its style, that he was relieved from the necessity, or at any rate held himself entitled to decline, the trouble of reading it through. That is no longer the case in England; it has not, indeed, been wholly the case for ten or a dozen years past, and to-day the facts are still more widely different. Dozens and scores of novels issue every year from the press, many of them by quite unknown, some by absolutely new, writers, the workmanship of which is so competent and, indeed, in many instances so excellent, that it needs a careful examination to discover the delimiting line between the merits of their form and the merits—or demerits—of their matter.
That all this is a result of the process initiated and propagated by successive extensions of the franchise, and directed through the continually enlarging channels of the educational system upon the general literary life of the country, will of course be eagerly contended by politicians of the various Liberal and Radical groups. Nor am I here concerned either to deny the operation of these causes, or to question the generally salutary character of their effects. If their realised value is too often exaggerated, their promise nevertheless is undoubtedly considerable. It is only the sour-blooded critic who imagines, or pretends to imagine, that an age is condemned to mediocrity because its average level of achievement is so high as to render anything short of very marked pre-eminence indistinguishable above the crowded ranks of competence. It is mere perversity to maintain that a glut of talent creates a state of things unfavourable to the emergence of genius. At worst it can only unfavourably affect its chances of instant recognition, and render the critic’s duty of discerning it more difficult to discharge. And undoubtedly it is upon the critic who strives to keep a level head and a judgment free from prejudice that the present condition of English literature most embarrassingly tells. For if the democratic movement has made for the wider diffusion of the literary faculty, it has on the other hand infected the published estimates of literary productions with the peculiar and characteristic vices of democracy—with its vehemence, its ignorance, its inconsistency, its insatiable thirst for the sensational, its vulgar admiration for artistic vulgarity, its utter lack of measure and reserve. From the exaggerated eulogy, the shameless réclame which attends even the most moderate of contemporary successes in literature sober criticism revolts. The artistic extravagances and violences into which every new writer, whether with ability or without, is tempted by the drum-beating showman of the press to endeavour to catch the popular taste, unceasingly multiply; and it needs a determined fair-mindedness on the part of the critic to refrain from judging the whole literary movement of the time by these repellent incidents. One has resolutely to think away all the brass bands and banners, as of a Salvation Army procession, which confuse and vulgarise the advance of English literature, before we can discern the truth which fortunately is at bottom indisputable, that during the Sixty Years of the Queen’s reign that advance has been real and great.
H. D. Traill was a journalist, author, and essayist, and a frequent contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette, the Saturday Review, the St James’s Gazette, the Fortnightly Review and the other great journals of the day. Born 14 August 1842, died 21 February 1900, he knew only one queen. This essay appeared as “The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (No. I): The literature of the Victorian era” in the Fortnightly Review, June 1897, Vol 67 (os), 61 (ns).