Some Diversions Of A Man Of Letters Part 17

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No part of his book is more vigorous or picturesque than the chapter dealing with the proclamation of Papal Infallibility. But here again one is annoyed by the glibness with which Mr. Strachey smoothly asserts what are only his conjectures.

In his account of Manning's reception in Rome--and this is of central importance in his picture of Manning's whole career--he exaggerates the personal policy of Pio Nono, whom he represents as more independent of the staff of the Curia than was possible. Rome has never acknowledged the right of the individual, even though that individual be the Pope, to an independent authority. Mr. Odo Russell was resident secretary in Rome from 1858 to 1870, and his period of office was drawing to a close when Manning arrived; he was shortly afterwards removed to become Assistant Under Secretary of State at our Foreign Office. The author of _Eminent Victorians_ is pleased to describe "poor Mr. Russell" as little better than a fly buzzing in Manning's "spider's web of delicate and clinging diplomacy." It is not in the memory of those who were behind the scenes that Odo Russell was such a cipher. Though suave in address, he was by no means deficient in decision or force of character, as was evidenced when, some months later, he explained to Mr. Gladstone his reasons for stating to Bismarck, without instructions from the government, that the Black Sea question was one on which Great Britain might be compelled to go to war with or without allies. Lord Morley's _Life of Gladstone_ (vol. ii., p. 354) is explicit on this interesting point. The information which, by special permission of the Pope, Cardinal Manning was able to give to him on all that was going on in the Council was, of course, of great value to Odo Russell, but his views on other aspects of the question were derived from quite different sources.

In this respect he had the advantage of the Cardinal, both on account of his diplomatic position and of his long and intimate knowledge both of Vatican policy and of the forces which the Curia has at its command. On the strength of those forces, and on the small amount of effective support which British opposition to the Decree of Infallibility was likely to receive from the Catholic Powers, he no doubt held strong opinions. Some years later he did not conceal his conviction that Prince Bismarck would be worsted in his conflict with Rome on the Education Laws, and the event proved his forecast to be perfectly correct. This is an example of the dangers which beset a too glib and superficial treatment of political events which were conducted in secret, and with every circumstance of mystery.

Several of the characteristics which diversify Mr. Strachey's remarkable volume are exemplified in the following quotation. It deals with the funeral of Cardinal Manning:--

"The route of the procession was lined by vast crowds of working people, whose imaginations, in some instinctive manner, had been touched. Many who had hardly seen him declared that in Cardinal Manning they had lost their best friend. Was it the magnetic vigour of the dead man's spirit that moved them? Or was it his valiant disregard of common custom and those conventional reserves and poor punctilios, which are wont to hem about the great? Or was it something untameable in his glances and in his gestures? Or was it, perhaps, the mysterious glamour lingering about him of the antique organisation of Rome? For whatever cause, the mind of the people had been impressed; and yet, after all, the impression was more acute than lasting. The Cardinal's memory is a dim thing to-day.

And he who descends into the crypt of that Cathedral which Manning never lived to see, will observe, in the quiet niche with the sepulchral monument, that the dust lies thick on the strange, the incongruous, the almost impossible object which, with its elaborations of dependent tassels, hangs down from the dim vault like some forlorn and forgotten trophy, the Hat."

Longinus tells us that "a just judgment of style is the final fruit of long experience." In the measured utterances of Mr. Asquith we recognise the speech of a man to whom all that is old and good is familiar, and in whom the art of finished expression has become a habit. No more elegantly balanced, no more delicately perceptive mind than his has appeared of recent times in our midst, and there is something in the equipoise of his own genius which points Mr. Asquith out as a judge peculiarly well fitted to sit in judgment upon rival ages. In his Romanes lecture there was but one thing to be regretted: the restricted space which it offered for the full expansion of the theme. Mr. Asquith excels in swift and rapid flights, but even for him the Victorian Age is too broad a province to be explored within one hour. He endeavoured to lighten his task by excluding theology and politics, and indeed but for such self-denial he could scarcely have moved at all in so dense an air.

He was able, however, having thrown out so much formidable ballast, to rise above his subject, and gazing at the Victorian Age, as it recedes, he declared it to have been very good. The young men who despise and attack that Age receive no support in any particular from Mr. Asquith.

He dwells on the fecundity of the literature of the Victorian Age in its middle period, and especially on the publications which adorned the decade from 1850 to 1859. He calls those years, very justly, "marvellous and almost unexampled" in their rich profusion. I may suggest that the only rival to them in our history is the period from 1590 to 1600, which saw the early plays of Shakespeare, the _Faerie Queene_, the _Arcadia_, the _Ecclesiastical Polity_, _Tamburlaine_, _The Discovery of Guiana_, and Bacon's _Essays_. If the works catalogued by Mr. Asquith do not equal these in intensity, they excel them by the breadth of the ground they cover, extending from Browning to Darwin and from Thackeray to Ruskin. Moreover, the Oxford list might have included _Lavengro_ and Newman's _Lectures_, and Herbert Spencer's _Social Statics_. The only third decade worthy to be named with those of 1590 and 1850 is that which opens in 1705, and is illuminated by the names of Pope, Shaftesbury, Swift, Arbuthnot, Defoe, Steele, Addison, and Berkeley. It is pleasant to compare these three magnificently flowering epochs, but not profitable if we attempt to weigh one against the other. They are comparable only in the splendour of their accomplishment.

It is more difficult to fit science into our scheme of the Victorian Age than to find places there for Art and Literature. Perhaps the reason of this is that the latter were national in their character, whereas scientific inquiry, throughout the nineteenth century, was carried on upon international lines, or, at least, in a spirit unprecedentedly non-provincial. The vast achievements of science, practical and theoretical, were produced for the world, not for a race. Mr. Asquith speaks with justice and eloquence of the appearance of Darwin's _Origin of Species_ which he distinguishes as being "if not actually the most important, certainly the most interesting event of the Age," and his remarks on the fortune of that book are excellent. No one can over-estimate the value of what we owe to Darwin. But perhaps a Frenchman might speak in almost the same terms of Claude Bernard, whose life and work ran parallel with Darwin's. If the _Origin of Species_ made an epoch in 1859, the _Introduction a la medicine experimental_ made another in 1865. Both these books, as channels by which the experimental labours of each investigator reached the prepared and instructed public, exercised at once, and have continued ever since to exercise, an enormous effect on thought as well as on knowledge. They transformed the methods by which man approaches scientific investigation, and while they instructed they stimulated a new ardour for instruction. In each case the value of the discovery lay in the value of the idea which led to the discovery, and, as some one has said in the case of Claude Bernard, they combined for the first time the operations of science and philosophy. The parallel between these two contemporaries extends, in a measure, to their disciples and successors, and seems to suggest that Mr. Asquith in his generous and difficult estimate may have exaggerated the purely Victorian element in the science of the age of Darwin. This only accentuates the difficulty, and he may perhaps retort that there is an extreme danger in suggesting what does and what does not form a part of so huge a system.

Justifiably Mr. Asquith takes it for granted that the performance of the central years of the Victorian Age was splendid. With those who deny merit to the writers and artists of the last half century it is difficult to reach a common ground for argument. What is to be the criterion of taste if all the multiform exhibitions of it which passed muster from 1840 to 1890 are now to be swept away with contumely?

Perhaps indeed it is only among those extravagant romanticists who are trying to raise entirely new ideals, unrelated to any existing forms of art and literature, that we find a denial of all merit to the Victorian masters. Against this caricature of criticism, this Bolshevism, it would be hopeless to contend. But there is a large and growing class of more moderate thinkers who hold, in the first place, that the merit of the leading Victorian writers has been persistently over-estimated, and that since its culmination the Victorian spirit has not ceased to decay, arriving at length at the state of timidity and repetition which encourages what is ugly, narrow, and vulgar, and demands nothing better than a swift dismissal to the dust-bin.

Every stratum of society, particularly if it is at all sophisticated, contains a body of barbarians who are usually silent from lack of occasion to express themselves, but who are always ready to seize an opportunity to suppress a movement of idealism. We accustom ourselves to the idea that certain broad principles of taste are universally accepted, and our respectable newspapers foster this benevolent delusion by talking habitually "over the heads," as we say, of the majority of their readers. They make "great music for a little clan," and nothing can be more praiseworthy than their effort, but, as a matter of fact, with or without the aid of the newspapers, the people who really care for literature or art, or for strenuous mental exercise of any kind, are relatively few. If we could procure a completely confidential statement of the number of persons to whom the names of Charles Lamb and Gainsborough have a distinct meaning, and still more of those who can summon up an impression of the essays of the one and of the pictures of the other, we should in all probability be painfully startled. Yet since these names enjoy what we call a universal celebrity, what must be the popular relation to figures much less prominent?

The result of this tyranny of fame, for so it must appear to all those who are inconvenienced by the expression of it, is to rouse a sullen tendency to attack the figures of art and literature whenever there arrives a chance of doing that successfully. Popular audiences can always be depended upon to cheer the statement of "a plain man" that he is not "clever" enough to understand Browning or Meredith. An assurance that life is too short to be troubled with Henry James wakes the lower middle class to ecstasy. An opportunity for such protests is provided by our English lack of critical tradition, by our accepted habit of saying, "I do hate" or "I must say I rather like" this or that without reference to any species of authority. This seems to have grown with dangerous rapidity of late years. It was not tolerated among the Victorians, who carried admiration to the highest pitch. They marshalled it, they defined it, they turned it from a virtue into a religion, and called it Hero Worship. Even their abuse was a kind of admiration turned inside out, as in Swinburne's diatribes against Carlyle, who himself fought against the theory of Darwin, not philosophically, but as though it were a personal insult to himself. Such violence of taste is now gone out of fashion; every scribbler and dauber likes to believe himself on a level with the best, and the positive criterion of value which sincere admiration gave is lost to us. Hence the success of Mr. Lytton Strachey.

But the decline of ardour does not explain the whole position, which we have to face with firmness. Epochs come to an end, and before they have their place finally awarded to them in history they are bound to endure much vicissitude of fortune. No amount of sarcasm or of indignant protest will avail to conceal the fact that we stand to-day at the porch, that much more probably we have already penetrated far into the vestibule, of a new age. What its character will be, or what its principal products, it is absolutely impossible for us as yet to conjecture. Meanwhile the Victorian Age recedes, and it loses size and lustre as we get further and further away from it. When what was called "Symbolism" began to act in urgent and direct reaction to the aims of those still in authority, the old order received its notice to quit, but that was at least five and twenty years ago, and the change is not complete. Ages so multiform and redundant and full of blood as the Victorian take a long time to die; they have their surprising recoveries and their uncovenanted convalescences. But even they give up the ghost at length, and are buried hastily with scant reverence. The time has doubtless come when aged mourners must prepare themselves to attend the obsequies of the Victorian Age with as much decency as they can muster.


Some Diversions Of A Man Of Letters Part 17

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