In speaking of Thackeray’s life I have said why and how it was that he took upon himself to lecture, and have also told the reader that he was altogether successful in carrying out the views proposed to himself. Of his peculiar manner of lecturing I have said but little, never having heard him. “He pounded along — very clearly,” I have been told; from which I surmise that there was no special grace of eloquence, but that he was always audible. I cannot imagine that he should have been ever eloquent. He could not have taken the trouble necessary with his voice, with his cadences, or with his outward appearance. I imagine that they who seem so naturally to fall into the proprieties of elocution have generally taken a great deal of trouble beyond that which the mere finding of their words has cost them. It is clearly to the matter of what he then gave the world, and not to the manner, that we must look for what interest is to be found in the lectures.
Those on The English Humorists were given first. The second set was on The Four Georges. In the volume now before us The Georges are printed first, and the whole is produced simply as a part of Thackeray’s literary work. Looked at, however, in that light the merit of the two sets of biographical essays is very different. In the one we have all the anecdotes which could be brought together respecting four of our kings — who as men were not peculiar, though their reigns were, and will always be, famous, because the country during the period was increasing greatly in prosperity and was ever strengthening the hold it had upon its liberties. In the other set the lecturer was a man of letters dealing with men of letters, and himself a prince among humorists is dealing with the humorists of his own country and language. One could not imagine a better subject for such discourses from Thackeray’s mouth than the latter. The former was not, I think, so good.
In discussing the lives of kings the biographer may trust to personal details or to historical facts. He may take the man, and say what good or evil may be said of him as a man; — or he may take the period, and tell his readers what happened to the country while this or the other king was on the throne. In the case with which we are dealing, the lecturer had not time enough or room enough for real history. His object was to let his audience know of what nature were the men; and we are bound to say that the pictures have not on the whole been flattering. It was almost necessary that with such a subject such should be the result. A story of family virtues, with princes and princesses well brought up, with happy family relations, all couleur de rose — as it would of course become us to write if we were dealing with the life of a living sovereign — would not be interesting. No one on going to hear Thackeray lecture on the Georges expected that. There must be some piquancy given, or the lecture would be dull; — and the eulogy of personal virtues can seldom be piquant. It is difficult to speak fittingly of a sovereign, either living or not, long since gone. You can hardly praise such a one without flattery. You can hardly censure him without injustice. We are either ignorant of his personal doings or we know them as secrets, which have been divulged for the most part either falsely or treacherously — often both falsely and treacherously. It is better, perhaps, that we should not deal with the personalities of princes.
I believe that Thackeray fancied that he had spoken well of George III., and am sure that it was his intention to do so. But the impression he leaves is poor. “He is said not to have cared for Shakespeare or tragedy much; farces and pantomimes were his joy; — and especially when clown swallowed a carrot or a string of sausages, he would laugh so outrageously that the lovely princess by his side would have to say, ‘My gracious monarch, do compose yourself.’ ‘George, be a king!’ were the words which she,”— his mother — “was ever croaking in the ears of her son; and a king the simple, stubborn, affectionate, bigoted man tried to be.” “He did his best; he worked according to his lights; what virtues he knew he tried to practise; what knowledge he could master he strove to acquire.” If the lectures were to be popular, it was absolutely necessary that they should be written in this strain. A lecture simply laudatory on the life of St. Paul would not draw even the bench of bishops to listen to it; but were a flaw found in the apostle’s life, the whole Church of England would be bound to know all about it. I am quite sure that Thackeray believed every word that he said in the lectures, and that he intended to put in the good and the bad, honestly, as they might come to his hand. We may be quite sure that he did not intend to flatter the royal family; — equally sure that he would not calumniate. There were, however, so many difficulties to be encountered that I cannot but think that the subject was ill-chosen. In making them so amusing as he did and so little offensive great ingenuity was shown.
I will now go back to the first series, in which the lecturer treated of Swift, Congreve, Addison, Steele, Prior, Gay, Pope, Hogarth, Smollett, Fielding, Sterne, and Goldsmith. All these Thackeray has put in their proper order, placing the men from the date of their birth, except Prior, who was in truth the eldest of the lot, but whom it was necessary to depose, in order that the great Swift might stand first on the list, and Smollett, who was not born till fourteen years after Fielding, eight years after Sterne, and who has been moved up, I presume, simply from caprice. From the birth of the first to the death of the last, was a period of nearly a hundred years. They were never absolutely all alive together; but it was nearly so, Addison and Prior having died before Smollett was born. Whether we should accept as humorists the full catalogue, may be a question; though we shall hardly wish to eliminate any one from such a dozen of names. Pope we should hardly define as a humorist, were we to be seeking for a definition specially fit for him, though we shall certainly not deny the gift of humour to the author of The Rape of the Lock, or to the translator of any portion of The Odyssey. Nor should we have included Fielding or Smollett, in spite of Parson Adams and Tabitha Bramble, unless anxious to fill a good company. That Hogarth was specially a humorist no one will deny; but in speaking of humorists we should have presumed, unless otherwise notified, that humorists in letters only had been intended. As Thackeray explains clearly what he means by a humorist, I may as well here repeat the passage: “If humour only meant laughter, you would scarcely feel more interest about humorous writers than about the private life of poor Harlequin just mentioned, who possesses in common with these the power of making you laugh. But the men regarding whose lives and stories your kind presence here shows that you have curiosity and sympathy, appeal to a great number of our other faculties, besides our mere sense of ridicule. The humorous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness — your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture — your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy. To the best of his means and ability he comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life almost. He takes upon himself to be the week-day preacher, so to speak. Accordingly, as he finds, and speaks, and feels the truth best, we regard him, esteem him — sometimes love him. And as his business is to mark other people’s lives and peculiarities, we moralise upon his life when he is gone — and yesterday’s preacher becomes the text for today’s sermon.”
Having thus explained his purpose, Thackeray begins his task, and puts Swift in his front rank as a humorist. The picture given of this great man has very manifestly the look of truth, and if true, is terrible indeed. We do, in fact, know it to be true — even though it be admitted that there is still room left for a book to be written on the life of the fearful dean. Here was a man endued with an intellect pellucid as well as brilliant; who could not only conceive but see also — with some fine instincts too; whom fortune did not flout; whom circumstances fairly served; but who, from first to last, was miserable himself, who made others miserable, and who deserved misery. Our business, during the page or two which we can give to the subject, is not with Swift but with Thackeray’s picture of Swift. It is painted with colours terribly strong and with shadows fearfully deep. “Would you like to have lived with him?” Thackeray asks. Then he says how pleasant it would have been to have passed some time with Fielding, Johnson, or Goldsmith. “I should like to have been Shakespeare’s shoeblack,” he says. “But Swift! If you had been his inferior in parts — and that, with a great respect for all persons present, I fear is only very likely — his equal in mere social station, he would have bullied, scorned, and insulted you. If, undeterred by his great reputation, you had met him like a man, he would have quailed before you and not had the pluck to reply — and gone home, and years after written a foul epigram upon you.” There is a picture! “If you had been a lord with a blue riband, who flattered his vanity, or could help his ambition, he would have been the most delightful company in the world. . . . How he would have torn your enemies to pieces for you, and made fun of the Opposition! His servility was so boisterous that it looked like independence.” He was a man whose mind was never fixed on high things, but was striving always after something which, little as it might be, and successful as he was, should always be out of his reach. It had been his misfortune to become a clergyman, because the way to church preferment seemed to be the readiest. He became, as we all know, a dean — but never a bishop, and was therefore wretched. Thackeray describes him as a clerical highwayman, seizing on all he could get. But “the great prize has not yet come. The coach with the mitre and crozier in it, which he intends to have for his share, has been delayed on the way from St. James’s; and he waits and waits till nightfall, when his runners come and tell him that the coach has taken a different way and escaped him. So he fires his pistol into the air with a curse, and rides away into his own country;"— or, in other words, takes a poor deanery in Ireland.
Thackeray explains very correctly, as I think, the nature of the weapons which the man used — namely, the words and style with which he wrote. “That Swift was born at No. 7, Hoey’s Court, Dublin, on November 30, 1667, is a certain fact, of which nobody will deny the sister-island the honour and glory; but it seems to me he was no more an Irishman than a man born of English parents at Calcutta is a Hindoo. Goldsmith was an Irishman and always an Irishman; Steele was an Irishman and always an Irishman; Swift’s heart was English and in England, his habits English, his logic eminently English; his statement is elaborately simple; he shuns tropes and metaphors, and uses his ideas and words with a wise thrift and economy, as he used his money; — with which he could be generous and splendid upon great occasions, but which he husbanded when there was no need to spend it. He never indulges in needless extravagance of rhetoric, lavish epithets, profuse imagery. He lays his opinions before you with a grave simplicity and a perfect neatness.” This is quite true of him, and the result is that though you may deny him sincerity, simplicity, humanity, or good taste, you can hardly find fault with his language.
Swift was a clergyman, and this is what Thackeray says of him in regard to his sacred profession. “I know of few things more conclusive as to the sincerity of Swift’s religion, than his advice to poor John Gay to turn clergyman, and look out for a seat on the Bench! Gay, the author of The Beggar’s Opera; Gay, the wildest of the wits about town! It was this man that Jonathan Swift advised to take orders, to mount in a cassock and bands — just as he advised him to husband his shillings, and put his thousand pounds out to interest.”
It was not that he was without religion — or without, rather, his religious beliefs and doubts, “for Swift,” says Thackeray, “was a reverent, was a pious spirit. For Swift could love and could pray.” Left to himself and to the natural thoughts of his mind, without those “orders” to which he had bound himself as a necessary part of his trade, he could have turned to his God with questionings which need not then have been heartbreaking. “It is my belief,” says Thackeray, “that he suffered frightfully from the consciousness of his own scepticism, and that he had bent his pride so far down as to put his apostasy out to hire.” I doubt whether any of Swift’s works are very much read now, but perhaps Gulliver’s travels are oftener in the hands of modern readers than any other. Of all the satires in our language it is probably the most cynical, the most absolutely illnatured, and therefore the falsest. Let those who care to form an opinion of Swift’s mind from the best known of his works, turn to Thackeray’s account of Gulliver. I can imagine no greater proof of misery than to have been able to write such a book as that.
It is thus that the lecturer concludes his lecture about Swift. “He shrank away from all affections sooner or later. Stella and Vanessa both died near him, and away from him. He had not heart enough to see them die. He broke from his fastest friend, Sheridan. He slunk away from his fondest admirer, Pope. His laugh jars on one’s ear after seven-score years. He was always alone — alone and gnashing in the darkness, except when Stella’s sweet smile came and shone on him. When that went, silence and utter night closed over him. An immense genius, an awful downfall and ruin! So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling. We have other great names to mention — none I think, however, so great or so gloomy.” And so we pass on from Swift, feeling that though the man was certainly a humorist, we have had as yet but little to do with humour.
Congreve is the next who, however truly he may have been a humorist, is described here rather as a man of fashion. A man of fashion he certainly was, but is best known in our literature as a comedian — worshipping that comic Muse to whom Thackeray hesitates to introduce his audience, because she is not only merry but shameless also. Congreve’s muse was about as bad as any muse that ever misbehaved herself — and I think, as little amusing. “Reading in these plays now,” says Thackeray, “is like shutting your ears and looking at people dancing. What does it mean? — the measures, the grimaces, the bowing, shuffling, and retreating, the cavaliers seuls advancing upon their ladies, then ladies and men twirling round at the end in a mad galop, after which everybody bows and the quaint rite is celebrated?” It is always so with Congreve’s plays, and Etherege’s and Wycherley’s. The world we meet there is not our world, and as we read the plays we have no sympathy with these unknown people. It was not that they lived so long ago. They are much nearer to us in time than the men and women who figured on the stage in the reign of James I. But their nature is farther from our nature. They sparkle but never warm. They are witty but leave no impression. I might almost go further, and say that they are wicked but never allure. “When Voltaire came to visit the Great Congreve,” says Thackeray, “the latter rather affected to despise his literary reputation; and in this, perhaps, the great Congreve was not far wrong. A touch of Steele’s tenderness is worth all his finery; a flash of Swift’s lightning, a beam of Addison’s pure sunshine, and his tawdry playhouse taper is invisible. But the ladies loved him, and he was undoubtedly a pretty fellow.”
There is no doubt as to the true humour of Addison, who next comes up before us, but I think that he makes hardly so good a subject for a lecturer as the great gloomy man of intellect, or the frivolous man of pleasure. Thackeray tells us all that is to be said about him as a humorist in so few lines that I may almost insert them on this page: “But it is not for his reputation as the great author of Cato and The Campaign, or for his merits as Secretary of State, or for his rank and high distinction as Lady Warwick’s husband, or for his eminence as an examiner of political questions on the Whig side, or a guardian of British liberties, that we admire Joseph Addison. It is as a Tattler of small talk and a Spectator of mankind that we cherish and love him, and owe as much pleasure to him as to any human being that ever wrote. He came in that artificial age, and began to speak with his noble natural voice. He came the gentle satirist, who hit no unfair blow; the kind judge, who castigated only in smiling. While Swift went about hanging and ruthless, a literary Jeffreys, in Addison’s kind court only minor cases were tried; — only peccadilloes and small sins against society, only a dangerous libertinism in tuckers and hoops, or a nuisance in the abuse of beaux canes and snuffboxes.” Steele set The Tatler a going. “But with his friend’s discovery of The Tatler, Addison’s calling was found, and the most delightful Tattler in the world began to speak. He does not go very deep. Let gentlemen of a profound genius, critics accustomed to the plunge of the bathos, console themselves by thinking that he couldn’t go very deep. There is no trace of suffering in his writing. He was so good, so honest, so healthy, so cheerfully selfish — if I must use the word!”
Such was Addison as a humorist; and when the hearer shall have heard also — or the reader read — that this most charming Tattler also wrote Cato, became a Secretary of State, and married a countess, he will have learned all that Thackeray had to tell of him.
Steele was one who stood much less high in the world’s esteem, and who left behind him a much smaller name — but was quite Addison’s equal as a humorist and a wit. Addison, though he had the reputation of a toper, was respectability itself. Steele was almost always disreputable. He was brought from Ireland, placed at the Charter House, and then transferred to Oxford, where he became acquainted with Addison. Thackeray says that “Steele found Addison a stately college don at Oxford.” The stateliness and the don’s rank were attributable no doubt to the more sober character of the English lad, for, in fact, the two men were born in the same year, 1672. Steele, who during his life was affected by various different tastes, first turned himself to literature, but early in life was bitten by the hue of a red coat and became a trooper in the Horse Guards. To the end he vacillated in the same way. “In that charming paper in The Tatler, in which he records his father’s death, his mother’s griefs, his own most solemn and tender emotions, he says he is interrupted by the arrival of a hamper of wine, ‘the same as is to be sold at Garraway’s next week;’ upon the receipt of which he sends for three friends, and they fall to instantly, drinking two bottles apiece, with great benefit to themselves, and not separating till two o’clock in the morning.”
He had two wives, whom he loved dearly and treated badly. He hired grand houses, and bought fine horses for which he could never pay. He was often religious, but more often drunk. As a man of letters, other men of letters who followed him, such as Thackeray, could not be very proud of him. But everybody loved him; and he seems to have been the inventor of that flying literature which, with many changes in form and manner, has done so much for the amusement and edification of readers ever since his time. He was always commencing, or carrying on — often editing — some one of the numerous periodicals which appeared during his time. Thackeray mentions seven: The Tatler, The Spectator, The Guardian, The Englishman, The Lover, The Reader, and The Theatre; that three of them are well known to this day — the three first named — and are to be found in all libraries, is proof that his life was not thrown away.
I almost question Prior’s right to be in the list, unless indeed the mastery over well-turned conceits is to be included within the border of humour. But Thackeray had a strong liking for Prior, and in his own humorous way rebukes his audience for not being familiar with The Town and Country Mouse. He says that Prior’s epigrams have the genuine sparkle, and compares Prior to Horace. “His song, his philosophy, his good sense, his happy easy turns and melody, his loves and his epicureanism bear a great resemblance to that most delightful and accomplished master.” I cannot say that I agree with this. Prior is generally neat in his expression. Horace is happy — which is surely a great deal more.
All that is said of Gay, Pope, Hogarth, Smollett, and Fielding is worth reading, and may be of great value both to those who have not time to study the authors, and to those who desire to have their own judgments somewhat guided, somewhat assisted. That they were all men of humour there can be no doubt. Whether either of them, except perhaps Gay, would have been specially ranked as a humorist among men of letters, may be a question.
Sterne was a humorist, and employed his pen in that line, if ever a writer did so, and so was Goldsmith. Of the excellence and largeness of the disposition of the one, and the meanness and littleness of the other, it is not necessary that I should here say much. But I will give a short passage from our author as to each. He has been quoting somewhat at length from Sterne, and thus he ends; “And with this pretty dance and chorus the volume artfully concludes. Even here one can’t give the whole description. There is not a page in Sterne’s writing but has something that were better away, a latent corruption — a hint as of an impure presence. Some of that dreary double entendre may be attributed to freer times and manners than ours — but not all. The foul satyr’s eyes leer out of the leaves constantly. The last words the famous author wrote were bad and wicked. The last lines the poor stricken wretch penned were for pity and pardon.” Now a line or two about Goldsmith, and I will then let my reader go to the volume and study the lectures for himself. “The poor fellow was never so friendless but that he could befriend some one; never so pinched and wretched but he could give of his crust, and speak his word of compassion. If he had but his flute left, he would give that, and make the children happy in the dreary London courts.”
Of this too I will remind my readers — those who have bookshelves well-filled to adorn their houses — that Goldsmith stands in the front where all the young people see the volumes. There are few among the young people who do not refresh their sense of humour occasionally from that shelf, Sterne is relegated to some distant and high corner. The less often that he is taken down the better. Thackeray makes some half excuse for him because of the greater freedom of the times. But “the times” were the same for the two. Both Sterne and Goldsmith wrote in the reign of George II.; both died in the reign of George III.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55