Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter V.

Ye realms yet unrevealed to human sight,

Ye canes athwart the hapless hands that write,

Ye critic chiefs,-permit me to relate

The mystic wonders of your silent state!

VIRGIL, AEneid, book vi.

Fortune had smiled upon Mr. MacGrawler since he first undertook the tuition of Mrs. Lobkins’s protege. He now inhabited a second-floor, and defied the sheriff and his evil spirits. It was at the dusk of evening that Paul found him at home and alone.

Before the mighty man stood a pot of London porter; a candle, with an unregarded wick, shed its solitary light upon his labours; and an infant cat played sportively at his learned feet, beguiling the weary moments with the remnants of the spiral cap wherewith, instead of laurel, the critic had hitherto nightly adorned his brows.

So soon as MacGrawler, piercing through the gloomy mist which hung about the chamber, perceived the person of the intruder, a frown settled upon his brow.

“Have I not told you, youngster,” he growled, “never to enter a gentleman’s room without knocking? I tell you, sir, that manners are no less essential to human happiness than virtue; wherefore, never disturb a gentleman in his avocations, and sit yourself down without molesting the cat!”

Paul, who knew that his respected tutor disliked any one to trace the source of the wonderful spirit which he infused into his critical compositions, affected not to perceive the pewter Hippocrene, and with many apologies for his want of preparatory politeness, seated himself as directed. It was then that the following edifying conversation ensued.

“The ancients,” quoth Paul, “were very great men, Mr. MacGrawler.”

“They were so, sir,” returned the critic; “we make it a rule in our profession to assert that fact.”

“But, sir,” said Paul, “they were wrong now and then.”

“Never, Ignoramus; never!”

“They praised poverty, Mr. MacGrawler!” said Paul, with a sigh.

“Hem!” quoth the critic, a little staggered; but presently recovering his characteristic, acumen, he observed, “It is true, Paul; but that was the poverty of other people.”

There was a slight pause. “Criticism,” renewed Paul, “must be a most difficult art.”

“A-hem! And what art is there, sir, that is not difficult — at least, to become master of?”

“True,” sighed Paul; “or else —”

“Or else what, boy?” repeated Mr. MacGrawler, seeing that Paul hesitated, either from fear of his superior knowledge, as the critic’s vanity suggested, or from (what was equally likely) want of a word to express his meaning.

“Why, I was thinking, sir,” said Paul, with that desperate courage which gives a distinct and loud intonation to the voice of all who set, or think they set, their fate upon a cast — “I was thinking that I should like to become a critic myself!”

“W-h-e-w!” whistled MacGrawler, elevating his eyebrows; “w-h-e-w! great ends have come of less beginnings!”

Encouraging as this assertion was, coming as it did from the lips of so great a man and so great a critic, at the very moment too when nothing short of an anathema against arrogance and presumption was expected to issue from those portals of wisdom, yet such is the fallacy of all human hopes, that Paul’s of a surety would have been a little less elated, had he, at the same time his ears drank in the balm of these gracious words, been able to have dived into the source whence they emanated.

“Know thyself!” was a precept the sage MacGrawler had endeavoured to obey; consequently the result of his obedience was that even by himself he was better known than trusted. Whatever he might appear to others, he had in reality no vain faith in the infallibility of his own talents and resources; as well might a butcher deem himself a perfect anatomist from the frequent amputation of legs of mutton, as the critic of “The Asinaeum” have laid “the flattering unction to his soul” that he was really skilled in the art of criticism, or even acquainted with one of its commonest rules, because he could with all speed cut up and disjoint any work, from the smallest to the greatest, from the most superficial to the most superior; and thus it was that he never had the want of candour to deceive himself as to his own talents. Paul’s wish therefore was no sooner expressed than a vague but golden scheme of future profit illumined the brain of MacGrawler — in a word, he resolved that Paul should henceforward share the labour of his critiques; and that he, MacGrawler, should receive the whole profits in return for the honour thereby conferred on his coadjutor.

Looking therefore at our hero with a benignant air, Mr. MacGrawler thus continued:—

“Yes, I repeat — great ends have come from less beginnings! Rome was not built in a day; and I, Paul, I myself was not always the editor of ‘The Asinaeum.’ You say wisely, criticism is a great science, a very great science; and it maybe divided into three branches — namely, ‘to tickle, to slash, and to plaster.’ In each of these three I believe without vanity I am a profound adept! I will initiate you into all. Your labours shall begin this very evening. I have three works on my table; they must be despatched by tomorrow night. I will take the most arduous; I abandon to you the others. The three consist of a Romance, an Epic in twelve books, and an Inquiry into the Human Mind, in three volumes. I, Paul, will tickle the Romance; you this very evening shall plaster the Epic, and slash the Inquiry!”

“Heavens, Mr. MacGrawler!” cried Paul, in consternation, “what do you mean? I should never be able to read an epic in twelve books, and I should fall asleep in the first page of the Inquiry. No, no, leave me the Romance, and take the other two under your own protection!”

Although great genius is always benevolent, Mr. MacGrawler could not restrain a smile of ineffable contempt at the simplicity of his pupil.

“Know, young gentleman,” said he, solemnly, “that the Romance in question must be tickled; it is not given to raw beginners to conquer that great mystery of our science.”

“Before we proceed further, explain the words of the art,” said Paul, impatiently.

“Listen, then,” rejoined MacGrawler; and as he spoke, the candle cast an awful glimmering on his countenance. “To slash is, speaking grammatically, to employ the accusative, or accusing case; you must cut up your book right and left, top and bottom, root and branch. To plaster a book is to employ the dative, or giving case; and you must bestow on the work all the superlatives in the language — you must lay on your praise thick and thin, and not leave a crevice untrowelled. But to tickle, sir, is a comprehensive word, and it comprises all the infinite varieties that fill the interval between slashing and plastering. This is the nicety of the art, and you can only acquire it by practice; a few examples will suffice to give you an idea of its delicacy.

“We will begin with the encouraging tickle: ‘Although this work is full of faults — though the characters are unnatural, the plot utterly improbable, the thoughts hackneyed, and the style ungrammatical — yet we would by no means discourage the author from proceeding; and in the mean while we confidently recommend his work to the attention of the reading public.”

“Take, now, the advising tickle: ‘There is a good deal of merit in these little volumes, although we must regret the evident haste in which they were written. The author might do better — we recommend him a study of the best writers;’ then conclude by a Latin quotation, which you may take from one of the mottoes in the ‘Spectator.’

“Now, young gentleman, for a specimen of the metaphorical tickle: ‘We beg this poetical aspirant to remember the fate of Pyrenaeus, who, attempting to pursue the Muses, forgot that he had not the wings of the goddesses, flung himself from the loftiest ascent he could reach, and perished.’

“This you see, Paul, is a loftier and more erudite sort of tickle, and may be reserved for one of the Quarterly Reviews. Never throw away a simile unnecessarily.

“Now for a sample of the facetious tickle: ‘Mr. —— has obtained a considerable reputation! Some fine ladies think him a great philosopher, and he has been praised in our hearing by some Cambridge Fellows for his knowledge of fashionable society.’

“For this sort of tickle we generally use the dullest of our tribe; and I have selected the foregoing example from the criticisms of a distinguished writer in ‘The Asinaeum,’ whom we call, par excellence, the Ass.

“There is a variety of other tickles — the familiar, the vulgar, the polite, the good-natured, the bitter; but in general all tickles may be supposed to signify, however disguised, one or other of these meanings: ‘This book would be exceedingly good if it were not exceedingly bad;’ or, ‘this book would be exceedingly bad if it were not exceedingly good.’

“You have now, Paul, a general idea of the superior art required by the tickle?”

Our hero signified his assent by a sort of hysterical sound between a laugh and a groan. MacGrawler continued:—

“There is another grand difficulty attendant on this class of criticism. — it is generally requisite to read a few pages of the work; because we seldom tickle without extracting, and it requires some judgment to make the context agree with the extract. But it is not often necessary to extract when you slash or when you plaster; when you slash, it is better in general to conclude with: ‘After what we have said, it is unnecessary to add that we cannot offend the taste of our readers by any quotation from this execrable trash.’ And when you plaster, you may wind up with: ‘We regret that our limits will not allow us to give any extracts from this wonderful and unrivalled work. We must refer our readers to the book itself.’

“And now, sir, I think I have given you a sufficient outline of the noble science of Scaliger and MacGrawler. Doubtless you are reconciled to the task I have allotted you; and while I tickle the Romance, you will slash the Inquiry and plaster the Epic!”

“I will do my best, sir!” said Paul, with that modest yet noble simplicity which becomes the virtuously ambitious; and MacGrawler forthwith gave him pen and paper, and set him down to his undertaking.

He had the good fortune to please MacGrawler, who, after having made a few corrections in style, declared he evinced a peculiar genius in that branch of composition. And then it was that Paul, made conceited by praise, said, looking contemptuously in the face of his preceptor, and swinging his legs to and fro —

“And what, sir, shall I receive for the plastered Epic and the slashed Inquiry?”

As the face of the school-boy who, when guessing, as he thinks rightly, at the meaning of some mysterious word in Cornelius Nepos, receiveth not the sugared epithet of praise, but a sudden stroke across the os humerosve [Face or shoulders] even so, blank, puzzled, and thunder-stricken, waxed the face of Mr. MacGrawler at the abrupt and astounding audacity of Paul.

“Receive!” he repeated — “receive! Why, you impudent, ungrateful puppy, would you steal the bread from your old master? If I can obtain for your crude articles an admission into the illustrious pages of ‘The Asinaeum,’ will you not be sufficiently paid, sir, by the honour? Answer me that. Another man, young gentleman, would have charged you a premium for his instructions; and here have I, in one lesson, imparted to you all the mysteries of the science, and for nothing! And you talk to me of ‘receive! — receive!’ Young gentleman, in the words of the immortal bard, ‘I would as lief you had talked to me of ratsbane!’”

“In fine, then, Mr. MacGrawler, I shall get nothing for my trouble?” said Paul.

“To be sure not, sir; the very best writer in ‘The Asinaeum’ only gets three shillings an article!” Almost more than he deserves, the critic might have added; for he who writes for nobody should receive nothing!

“Then, sir,” quoth the mercenary Paul, profanely, and rising, he kicked with one kick the cat, the Epic, and the Inquiry to the other end of the room — “then, sir, you may all go to the devil!”

We do not, O gentle reader! seek to excuse this hasty anathema. The habits of childhood will sometimes break forth despite of the after blessings of education; and we set not up Paul for thine imitation as that model of virtue and of wisdom which we design thee to discover in MacGrawler.

When that great critic perceived Paul had risen and was retreating in high dudgeon towards the door, he rose also, and repeating Paul’s last words, said —

“‘Go to the devil!’ Not so quick, young gentleman — festinca lente — all in good time. What though I did, astonished at your premature request, say that you should receive nothing; yet my great love for you may induce me to bestir myself on your behalf. The ‘Asinaeum,’ I it is true, only gives three shillings an article in general; but I am its editor, and will intercede with the proprietors on your behalf. Yes, yes; I will see what is to be done. Stop a bit, my boy.”

Paul, though very irascible, was easily pacified; he reseated himself, and taking MacGrawler’s hand, said —

“Forgive me for my petulance, my dear sir; but, to tell you the honest truth, I am very low in the world just at present, and must get money in some way or another — in short, I must either pick pockets or write (not gratuitously) for ‘The Asinaeum. ‘”

And without further preliminary Paul related his present circumstances to the critic, declared his determination not to return to the Mug, and requested, at least, from the friendship of his old preceptor the accommodation of shelter for that night.

MacGrawler was exceedingly disconcerted at hearing so bad an account of his pupil’s finances as well as prospects, for he had secretly intended to regale himself that evening with a bowl of punch, for which he purposed that Paul should pay; but as he knew the quickness of parts possessed by the young gentleman, as also the great affection entertained for him by Mrs. Lobkins, who in all probability would solicit his return the next day, he thought it not unlikely that Paul would enjoy the same good fortune as that presiding over his feline companion, which, though it had just been kicked to the other end of the apartment, was now resuming its former occupation, unhurt, and no less merrily than before. He therefore thought it would be imprudent to discard his quondam pupil, despite of his present poverty; and, moreover, although the first happy project of pocketing all the profits derivable from Paul’s industry was now abandoned, he still perceived great facility in pocketing a part of the same receipts. He therefore answered Paul very warmly, that he fully sympathized with him in his present melancholy situation; that, so far as he was concerned, he would share his last shilling with his beloved pupil, but that he regretted at that moment he had only eleven-pence halfpenny in his pocket; that he would, however, exert himself to the utmost in procuring an opening for Paul’s literary genius; and that, if Paul liked to take the slashing and plastering part of the business on himself, he would willingly surrender it to him, and give him all the profits whatever they might be. En attendant, he regretted that a violent rheumatism prevented his giving up his own bed to his pupil, but that he might, with all the pleasure imaginable, sleep upon the rug before the fire. Paul was so affected by this kindness in the worthy man, that, though not much addicted to the melting mood, he shed tears of gratitude. He insisted, however, on not receiving the whole reward of his labours; and at length it was settled, though with a noble reluctance on the part of MacGrawler, that it should be equally shared between the critic and the critic’s protege — the half profits being reasonably awarded to MacGrawler for his instructions and his recommendation.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31