The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Appendix IX


A certain set of individuals calling themselves critics have attacked ‘Lavengro’ with much virulence and malice. If what they call criticism had been founded on truth, the author would have had nothing to say. The book contains plenty of blemishes, some of them, by-the-by, wilful ones, as the writer will presently show; not one of these, however, has been detected and pointed out; but the best passages in the book, indeed, whatever was calculated to make the book valuable, have been assailed with abuse and misrepresentation. The duty of the true critic is to play the part of a leech, and not of a viper. Upon true and upon malignant criticism there is an excellent fable by the Spaniard Iriarte. The viper says to the leech, ‘Why do people invite your bite, and flee from mine?’ ‘Because,’ says the leech, ‘people receive health from my bite, and poison from yours.’ ‘There is as much difference,’ says the clever Spaniard, ‘between true and malignant criticism as between poison and medicine.’ Certainly a great many meritorious writers have allowed themselves to be poisoned by malignant criticism; the writer, however, is not one of those who allow themselves to be poisoned by pseudo-critics; no! no! he will rather hold them up by their tails, and show the creatures wriggling, blood and foam streaming from their broken jaws. First of all, however, he will notice one of their objections. ‘The book isn’t true,’ say they. Now one of the principal reasons with those that have attacked ‘Lavengro’ for their abuse of it is, that it is particularly true in one instance, namely, that it exposes their own nonsense, their love of humbug, their slavishness, their dressings, their goings out, their scraping and bowing to great people; it is the showing up of ‘gentility nonsense’ in ‘Lavengro’ that has been one principal reason for the raising of the above cry; for in ‘Lavengro’ is denounced the besetting folly of the English people, a folly which those who call themselves guardians of the public taste are far from being above. ‘We can’t abide anything that isn’t true!’ they exclaim. Can’t they? Then why are they so enraptured with any fiction that is adapted to purposes of humbug, which tends to make them satisfied with their own proceedings, with their own nonsense, which does not tell them to reform, to become more alive to their own failings, and less sensitive about the tyrannical goings on of the masters, and the degraded condition, the sufferings, and the trials of the serfs, in the star Jupiter? Had ‘Lavengro,’ instead of being the work of an independent mind, been written in order to further any of the thousand and one cants, and species of nonsense prevalent in England, the author would have heard much less about its not being true, both from public detractors and private censurers.

‘But “Lavengro” pretends to be an autobiography,’ 203 say the critics; and here the writer begs leave to observe, that it would be well for people who profess to have a regard for truth, not to exhibit in every assertion which they make a most profligate disregard of it; this assertion of theirs is a falsehood, and they know it to be a falsehood. In the preface ‘Lavengro’ is stated to be a dream; and the writer takes this opportunity of stating that he never said it was an autobiography, never authorized any person to say that it was one; and that he has in innumerable instances declared in public and private, both before and after the work was published, that it was not what is generally termed an autobiography; but a set of people who pretend to write criticisms on books, hating the author for various reasons — amongst others, because, having the proper pride of a gentleman and a scholar, he did not, in the year 1843, choose to permit himself to be exhibited and made a zany of in London, and especially because he will neither associate with, nor curry favour with, them who are neither gentlemen nor scholars — attack his book with abuse and calumny. He is, perhaps, condescending too much when he takes any notice of such people; as, however, the English public is wonderfully led by cries and shouts, and generally ready to take part against any person who is either unwilling or unable to defend himself, he deems it advisable not to be altogether quiet with those who assail him. The best way to deal with vipers is to tear out their teeth; and the best way to deal with pseudo-critics is to deprive them of their poison-bag, which is easily done by exposing their ignorance. The writer knew perfectly well the description of people with whom he would have to do, he therefore very quietly prepared a stratagem, by means of which he could at any time exhibit them, powerless and helpless in his hand. Critics, when they review books, ought to have a competent knowledge of the subjects which those books discuss.

‘Lavengro’ is a philological book, a poem if you chose to call it so. Now, what a fine triumph it would have been for those who wished to vilify the book and its author, provided they could have detected the latter tripping in his philology — they might have instantly said that he was an ignorant pretender to philology — they laughed at the idea of his taking up a viper up by its tail, a trick which hundreds of country urchins do every September, but they were silent about the really wonderful part of the book, the philological matter — they thought philology was his stronghold, and that it would be useless to attack him there; they of course would give him no credit as a philologist, for anything like fair treatment towards him was not to be expected at their hands, but they were afraid to attack his philology — yet that was the point, and the only point, in which they might have attacked him successfully; he was vulnerable there. How was this? Why, in order to have an opportunity of holding up pseudo-critics by the tails, he wilfully spelt various foreign words wrong — Welsh words, and even Italian words — did they detect these mis-spellings? Not one of them, even as he knew they would not, and he now taunts them with ignorance; and the power of taunting them with ignorance is the punishment which he designed for them — a power which they might, but for their ignorance, have used against him. The writer, besides knowing something of Italian and Welsh, knows a little of Armenian language and literature; but who, knowing anything of the Armenian language, unless he had an end in view, would say that the word for sea in Armenian is anything like the word tide in English? The word for sea in Armenian is dzow, a word connected with the Tebetian word for water, and the Chinese shuy, and the Turkish su, signifying the same thing; but where is the resemblance between dzow and tide? Again, the word for bread in ancient Armenian is hats; yet the Armenian on London Bridge is made to say zhats, which is not the nominative of the Armenian noun for bread, but the accusative. Now, critics, ravening against a man because he is a gentleman and a scholar, and has not only the power but also the courage to write original works, why did not you discover that weak point? Why, because you were ignorant; so here ye are held up! Moreover, who with a name commencing with Z, ever wrote fables in Armenian? There are two writers of fables in Armenian — Varthan and Koscht, and illustrious writers they are, one in the simple and the other in the ornate style of Armenian composition, but neither of their names begins with a Z. Oh, what a precious opportunity ye lost, ye ravening crew, of convicting the poor, half-starved, friendless boy of the book, of ignorance or misrepresentation, by asking who with a name beginning with Z ever wrote fables in Armenian; but ye couldn’t help yourselves, ye are duncie. We duncie! Ay, duncie. So here ye are held up by the tails, blood and foam streaming from your jaws.

The writer wishes to ask here, what do you think of all this, Messieurs les Critiques? Were ye ever served so before? But don’t you richly deserve it? Haven’t you been for years past bullying and insulting everybody whom you deemed weak, and currying favour with everybody whom ye thought strong? ‘We approve of this. We disapprove of that. Oh, this will never do. These are fine lines!’ The lines perhaps some horrid sycophantic rubbish addressed to Wellington, or Lord So-and-so. To have your ignorance thus exposed, to be shown up in this manner, and by whom? A gypsy! Ay, a gypsy was the very right person to do it. But is it not galling after all?

Ah, but we don’t understand Armenian, it cannot be expected that we should understand Armenian, or Welsh, or — Hey, what’s this? The mighty we not understand Armenian, or Welsh, or — Then why does the mighty we pretend to review a book like ‘Lavengro’? From the arrogance with which it continually delivers itself, one would think that the mighty we is omniscient; that it understands every language; is versed in every literature; yet the mighty we does not even know the word for bread in Armenian. It knows bread well enough by name in English, and frequently bread in England only by its name, but the truth is, that the mighty we, with all its pretension, is in general a very sorry creature, who, instead of saying nous disons, should rather say nous dis: Porny in his ‘Guerre des Dieux,’ very profanely makes the three in one say, Je faisons; now, Lavengro, who is anything but profane, would suggest that critics, especially magazine and Sunday newspaper critics, should commence with nous dis, as the first word would be significant of the conceit and assumption of the critic, and the second of the extent of the critic’s information. The we says its say, but when fawning sycophancy or vulgar abuse are taken from that say, what remains? Why a blank, a void like Ginnungagap.

As the writer, of his own accord, has exposed some of the blemishes of his book — a task, which a competent critic ought to have done — he will now point out two or three of its merits, which any critic, not altogether blinded with ignorance, might have done, or not replete with gall and envy would have been glad to do. The book has the merit of communicating a fact connected with physiology, which in all the pages of the multitude of books was never previously mentioned — the mysterious practice of touching objects to baffle the evil chance. The miserable detractor will, of course, instantly begin to rave about such a habit being common — well and good; but was it ever before described in print, or all connected with it dissected? He may then vociferate something about Johnson having touched — the writer cares not whether Johnson — who, by the by, during the last twenty or thirty years, owing to people having become ultra Tory mad from reading Scott’s novels and the Quarterly Review, has been a mighty favourite, especially with some who were in the habit of calling him a half-crazy old fool — touched, or whether he did not; but he asks where did Johnson ever describe the feelings which induced him to perform the magic touch, even supposing that he did perform it? Again, the history gives an account of a certain book called the ‘Sleeping Bard,’ the most remarkable prose work of the most difficult language but one, of modern Europe; a book, for a notice of which, he believes, one might turn over in vain the pages of any review printed in England, or, indeed, elsewhere. So here are two facts, one literary and the other physiological, for which any candid critic was bound to thank the author, even as in ‘The Romany Rye’ there is a fact connected with Iro Norman Myth, for the disclosing of which any person who pretends to have a regard for literature is bound to thank him, namely, that the mysterious Finn or Fingal of ‘Ossian’s Poems’ is one and the same person as the Sigurd Fofnisbane of the Edda and the Wilkina, and the Siegfried Horn of the Lay of the Niebelungs.

The writer might here conclude, and, he believes, most triumphantly; as, however, he is in the cue for writing, which he seldom is, he will for his own gratification, and for the sake of others, dropping metaphors about vipers and serpents, show up in particular two or three sets or cliques of people, who, he is happy to say, have been particularly virulent against him and his work, for nothing indeed could have given him greater mortification than their praise.

In the first place, he wishes to dispose of certain individuals who call themselves men of wit and fashion — about town — who he is told have abused his book ‘vaustly’— their own word. These people paint their cheeks, wear white kid gloves, and dabble in literature, or what they conceive to be literature. For abuse from such people, the writer was prepared. Does anyone imagine that the writer was not well aware, before he published his book, that, whenever he gave it to the world, he should be attacked by every literary coxcomb in England who had influence enough to procure the insertion of a scurrilous article in a magazine or newspaper! He has been in Spain, and has seen how invariably the mule attacks the horse; now why does the mule attack the horse? Why, because the latter carries about with him that which the envious hermaphrodite does not possess.

They consider, forsooth, that his book is low — but he is not going to waste words about them — one or two of whom, he is told, have written very duncie books about Spain, and are highly enraged with him, because certain books which he wrote about Spain were not considered duncie. No, he is not going to waste words upon them, for verily he dislikes their company, and so he’ll pass them by, and proceed to others.

The Scotch Charlie o’er the water people have been very loud in the abuse of ‘Lavengro’— this again might be expected; the sarcasms of the Priest about the Charlie o’er the water nonsense of course stung them. Oh! it is one of the claims which ‘Lavengro’ has to respect, that it is the first, if not the only work, in which that nonsense is, to a certain extent, exposed. Two or three of their remarks on passages of ‘Lavengro’ he will reproduce and laugh at. Of course your Charlie o’er the water people are genteel exceedingly, and cannot abide anything low. Gypsyism they think is particularly low, and the use of gypsy words in literature beneath its gentility; so they object to gypsy words being used in ‘Lavengro’ where gypsies are introduced speaking. ‘What is Romany forsooth?’ say they. Very good! And what is Scotch? Has not the public been nauseated with Scotch for the last thirty years? ‘Ay, but Scotch is not —’ The writer believes he knows much better than the Scotch what Scotch is, and what it is not; he has told them before what it is, a very sorry jargon. He will now tell them what it’s not — a sister or an immediate daughter of the Sanscrit, which Romany is. ‘Ay, but the Scotch are’— foxes, foxes, nothing else than foxes, even like the gypsies — the difference between the gypsy and Scotch fox being that the first is wild, with a mighty brush, the other a sneak, with a gilt collar and without a tail.

A Charlie o’er the water person attempts to be witty because the writer has said that perhaps a certain old Edinburgh high-school porter, of the name of Boee, was perhaps of the same blood as a certain Bui, a Northern Kemp, who distinguished himself at the battle of Horinger Bay. A pretty matter, forsooth, to excite the ridicule of a Scotchman! Why, is there a beggar or trumpery fellow in Scotland who does not pretend to be somebody, or related to somebody? Is not every Scotchman descended from some king, kemp, or cow-stealer of old, by his own account at least? Why, the writer would even go so far as to bet a trifle that the poor creature who ridicules Boee’s supposed ancestry has one of his own, at least, as grand and as apocryphal as old Boee’s of the high school.

The same Charlie o’er the water person is mightily indignant that Lavengro should have spoken disrespectfully of William Wallace; Lavengro, when he speaks of that personage, being a child of about ten years old, and repeating merely what he had heard. All the Scotch, by-the-by, for a great many years past, have been great admirers of William Wallace, particularly the Charlie o’er the water people, who in their nonsense-verses about Charlie generally contrive to bring in the name of William, Willie, or Wullie Wallace. The writer begs leave to say that he by no means wishes to bear hard against William Wallace, but he cannot help asking why, if William, Willie, or Wullie Wallace was such a particularly nice person, did his brother Scots betray him to a certain renowned southern warrior, called Edward Longshanks, who caused him to be hanged and cut into four in London, and his quarters to be placed over the gates of certain towns? They got gold, it is true, and titles, very nice things no doubt; but surely the life of a patriot is better than all the gold and titles in the world — at least, Lavengro thinks so; but Lavengro has lived more with gypsies than Scotchmen, and gypsies do not betray their brothers. It would be some time before a gypsy would hand over his brother to the harum-beck, 204 even supposing you would not only make him a king, but a justice of the peace, and not only give him the world, but the best farm on the Holkham estate; but gypsies are wild foxes, and there is certainly a wonderful difference between the way of thinking of the wild fox who retains his brush, and that of the scurvy kennel creature who has lost his tail.

Ah! but thousands of Scotch, and particularly the Charlie o’er the water people, will say: ‘We didn’t sell Willie Wallace; it was our forbears who sold Willie Wallace. . . . If Edward Longshanks had asked us to sell Wullie Wallace we would soon have shown him that —’ Lord better ye, ye poor trumpery set of creatures, ye would not have acted a bit better than your forefathers; remember how ye have ever treated the few amongst ye who, though born in the kennel, have shown something of the spirit of the wood. Many of ye are still alive who delivered over men, quite as honest and patriotic as William Wallace, into the hands of an English minister, to be chained and transported for merely venturing to speak and write in the cause of humanity, at the time when Europe was beginning to fling off the chains imposed by kings and priests. And it is not so very long since Burns, to whom ye are now building up obelisks rather higher than he deserves, was permitted by his countrymen to die in poverty and misery because he would not join with them in songs of adulation to kings and the trumpery great. So say not that ye would have acted with respect to William Wallace one whit better than your fathers; and you in particular, ye children of Charlie, whom do ye write nonsense-verses about? A family of dastard despots, who did their best, during a century and more, to tread out the few sparks of independent feeling still glowing in Scotland; but enough has been said about ye.

Amongst those who have been prodigal in abuse and defamation of ‘Lavengro’ have been your modern Radicals, and particularly a set of people who filled the country with noise against the King and Queen, Wellington and the Tories, in ‘32. About these people the writer will presently have occasion to say a good deal, and also of real Radicals. As, however, it may be supposed that he is one of those who delight to play the sycophant to kings and queens, to curry favour with Tories, and to bepraise Wellington, he begs leave to state that such is not the case.

About kings and queens he has nothing to say; about Tories simply that he believes them to be a bad set; about Wellington, however, it will be necessary for him to say a good deal of mixed import, as he will subsequently frequently have occasion to mention him in connection with what he has to say about pseudo-Radicals.

203 See Introduction.

204 Harman-beck, ‘constable’ (old cant); modern slang, beak.

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