Page images
PDF
EPUB

bishop Trench's, one of his earliest, and most interesting, which so well embodies much that I have said, that I hope you will bear with me while I read a somewhat lengthy passage from it. The lines are simple, not greatly elaborated, but they are true, and they may, perhaps, fix the attention of some who by this time have grown weary of abstract and prosaic argument—according to that say1ng—

“A verse may find him who a sermon flies.”

A youth, a favored child of culture, when he has long sought and not found what he expected to find in culture, wanders forth desolate and desponding into the eastern desert. The irrevocable past lies heavy on him—his baffled purpose, his wasted years, his utter misery. So heart-forlorn is he that he is on the verge of self-destruction. At length, as he sits inconsolable beside a ruined temple in the desert, an old man stands by his side, and asks, “What is your sorrow?” The youth, lured by some strange sympathy in the old man's mien and voice, unburdens to him his grief, tells how he has tried to make and keep himself wise and pure and elevated above the common crowd, that in his soul's mirror he might find—

“A reflex of the eternal mind,
A glass to give him back the truth,”

how he has followed after ideal beauty, to live in its light, dwell beneath its shadow, but at length has found that this too is vanity and emptiness.

“Till now, my youth yet scarcely done,
The heart which I had thought to steep
In hues of beauty, and to keep
Its consecrated home and fane,
That heart is soiled with many a stain,
Which from without or from within
Has gathered there till all is sin,
Till now I only draw my breath,
I live but in the hope of death.”

After an interval the old man replies:—

“Ah me, my son, A weary course your life has run; And yet it need not be in vain That you have suffered all this pain; . . . Nay, deem not of us as at strife, Because you set before your life A purpose, and a loftier aim Than the blind lives of men may claim For the most part; or that you sought, By fixed resolve and solemn thought, To lift your being's calm estate Out of the range of time and fate. Glad am I that a thing unseen, A spiritual Presence, this has been Your worship, this your young heart stirred. But yet herein you proudly erred, Here may the source of woe be found, You thought to fling yourself around The atmosphere of light and love In which it was your joy to move; You thought by efforts of your own To take at last each jarring tone Out of your life, till all should meet In one majestic music sweet; And deemed that in your own heart's ground The root of good was to be found, And that by careful watering And earnest tendance we might bring The bud, the blossom, and the fruit, To grow and flourish from that root. You deemed you needed nothing more Than skill and courage to explore Deep down enough in your own heart, To where the well-head lay apart, Which must the springs of being feed, And that these fountains did but need The soil that choked them moved away, To bubble in the open day. But thanks to Heaven it is not so: That root a richer soil doth know Than our poor hearts could e'er supply— That stream is from a source more high; From God it came, to God returns, Not nourished from our scanty urns, But fed from His unfailing river, Which runs and will run on forever.”

GOLDWIN SMITH

THE LAMPS OF FICTION

[Address of Goldwin Smith, author and professor of history (born in Reading, England, August 23, 1823; ), delivered on the centenary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott.]

Ruskin has lighted seven lamps of Architecture to guide the steps of the architect in the worthy practice of his art. It seems time that lamps should be lighted to guide the steps of the writer of Fiction. Think what the influence of novelists now is, and how some of them use it! Think of the multitudes who read nothing but novels; and then look into the novels which they read I have seen a young man's whole library consisting of thirty or forty of those paper-bound volumes, which are the bad tobacco of the mind. In England, I looked over three railway bookstalls in one day. There was hardly a novel by an author of any repute on one of them. There were heaps of nameless garbage, commended by tasteless, flaunting woodcuts, the promise of which was no doubt well kept within. Fed upon such food daily, what will the mind of a nation be 2 I say that there is no flame at which we can light the Lamp of Fiction purer or brighter than the genius of him in honor to whose memory we are assembled here to-day. Scott does not moralize. Heaven be praised that he does not. He does not set a moral object before him, nor lay down moral rules. But his heart, brave, pure, and true, is a law to itself; and by studying what he does, we may find the law for all who follow his calling. If seven lamps have been lighted for architec

ture, Scott will light as many for Fiction.

I. The Lamp of Reality.—The novelist must ground his work in faithful study of human nature. There was a popular writer of romances, who, it was said, used to go round to the fashionable watering-places to pick up characters. That was better than nothing. There is another popular writer who, it seems, makes voluminous indices of men and things, and draws on them for his material. This also is better than nothing. For some writers, and writers dear to the circulating libraries too, might, for all that appears in their works, lie in bed all day, and write by night under the excitement of green tea. Creative art, I suppose they call this, and it is creative with a vengeance. Not so, Scott. The human nature which he paints, he has seen in all its phases, gentle and simple, in burgher and shepherd, Highlander, Lowlander, Borderer, and Islesman; he had come into close contact with it; he had opened it to himself by the talisman of his joyous and winning presence; he had studied it thoroughly with a clear eye and an all-embracing heart. When his scenes are laid in the past, he has honestly studied history. The history of his novels is perhaps not critically accurate, not up to the mark of our present knowledge, but in the main it is sound and true—sounder and more true than that of many professed historians, and even than that of his own historical works, in which he sometimes yields to prejudice, while in his novels he is lifted above it by his loyalty to his art.

II. The Lamp of Ideality.—The materials of the novelist must be real; they must be gathered from the field of humanity by his actual observation. But they must pass through the crucible of the imagination; they must be idealized. The artist is not a photographer, but a painter. He must depict, not persons, but humanity; otherwise he forfeits the artist's name, and the power of doing the artist's work in our hearts. When we see a novelist bring out a novel with one or two good characters or the same few characters over and over again, we may be sure that he is without the power of idealization. He has merely photographed what he has seen, and his stock is exhausted. It is wonderful what a quantity of the mere lees of such writers, more and more watered down, the libraries go on complacently circulating, and the reviews go on complacently reviewing. Of course, this power of idealization is the great gift of genius. It is that which distinguishes Homer, Shakespeare, and Walter Scott from ordinary men. But there is also a moral effort in rising above the easy work of mere description to the height of art. Need it be said that Scott is thoroughly ideal, as well as thoroughly real? There are vague traditions that this man and the other was the original of some character of Scott. But who can point out the man of whom a character in Scott is a mere portrait? It would be as hard as to point out a case of servile delineation in Shakespeare. Scott's characters are never monsters or caricatures. They are full of nature; but it is universal nature. Therefore they have their place in the universal heart, and will keep that place forever. And mark that even in his historical novels he is still ideal. Historical romance is a perilous thing. The fiction is apt to spoil the fact, and the fact the fiction; the history to be perverted and the romance to be shackled; daylight to kill dreamlight, and dreamlight to kill daylight. But Scott takes few liberties with historical facts and characters; he treats them with the costume and the manners of the period, as the background of the picture. The personages with whom he deals freely are the Peverils and the Nigels; and these are his lawful property, the offspring of his own imagination, and belong to the ideal.

III. The Lamp of Impartiality.—The novelist must look on humanity without partiality or prejudice. His sym- . pathy, like that of the historian, must be unbounded, and untainted by sect or party. He must see everywhere the good that is mixed with evil, the evil that is mixed with good. And this he will not do, unless his heart be right. It is in Scott's historical novels that his impartiality is most severely tried and is most apparent, though it is apparent in all his works. Shakespeare was a pure dramatist; nothing but art found a home in that lofty, smooth, idealistic brow. He stands apart, not only from the political and religious passions, but from the interests of his time, seeming hardly to have any historical surroundings, but to shine like a planet suspended by itself in the sky. So it is

« PreviousContinue »