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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83


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Mr. Froude's writings, since his History of England, have been in the nature of an anti-climax. Even his "Cæsar" bears only the same relation to the history that Trollope's "Cicero" does to his Barchester Novels. Froude has spread himself over a multitude of topics, in his "Short Studies" and long studies, but he has done nothing in them that other men cannot do at least as well, and thus the master of English prose is wasted.

His visit to Melbourne naturally leads the student to refer again to his matchless History. When Gambetta, as a budding advocate, fired off his first flowery oration, or somewhere about his first, Cremieux said, "My dear young fellow, that resplendency won't do, unless you apply it as the polish of a broad, sound, and rational superstructure." Gambetta was thenceforward careful to observe the caution of the veteran barrister. Now the beauty of Froude is that, in the history of England, the style sets forth a mass of new facts, laboriously gleaned among the dusty archives in the court records of Spain and elsewhere. In his subsequent writings, he has only used the materials familar to other men. Therefore he presents an upper side without the under. He is an Abanazar who polishes up old lamps. Perhaps, like Carlyle exhausted with "Frederic," Froude tired upon the "History," and was glad to be emancipated from its stiff old harness. But toil and sweat are the indispensable concomitants of a success worth having. It is painful to contemplate the number of abortive things Mr. Froude has done, upon which his unrivalled talent has been thrown away. The whole Carlyle memoir business was utterly unworthy of the historian of England. His "Carlyle" will never be a classic. Why should he ever lay pen to anything short of a classic? Henry Irving does not descend to Horatio.

Another literary artist laboriously working up the anti-climax has been Tennyson. His highest level is reached in the old volume which contains "Locksley Hall," "The Palace of Art," and "The Two Voices." Prosperity has been his misfortune, choking, stifling prosperity. His poetry has become that of nauseous perfumes and Tyrian dyes. The Sir Lancelots and Sir Galahads are only appreciable by the reader of a thousand a year and upwards. They have not permeated in the least to the masses of the population. The sickly, namby pamby stuff is as perishable as a twenty guinea bonnet. It is the tulle and gros grain of poetry.

In "Queen Mary," "Harold," and "Becket," Tennyson has struck out for something better than the taffy of the "Idylls of the King" and "Holy Grail." To be sure "Becket," the best of Tennyson's longer dramas, is far inferior to Shakespeare's—or page 53 somebody else's—"Titus Andronicus," but it is not distinctly bad. There are gems in it, though Tennyson has not the pinions to reach to "Becket." It recalls what Sydney Smith wrote on the "ponderous limnings" of a certain eminent Rev. Dr. Rennel, in a sermon on the French Revolution. The subject so exalted the mind of a reader that he was worried and annoyed by the writer's failure to fill it. In other words, the thoughts outstripped the page, and, as Sydney Smith says again, "Although we cannot act the smallest part in a farce, we have a perfect right to hiss Romeo Coates."

Mr. Froude's papers on Becket, in the earlier numbers of the Nineteenth Century, doubtless suggested Tennyson's treatment of the subject. By the way, Douglas Jerrold wrote a five act drama on Becket, and it was acted at a London minor theatre, about half a century ago. The London Spectator more than insinuates that Mr. Aubrey de Vere's "Becket" is a superior play to Tennyson's, but what is in a name?

Our readers will not stand poetry. We only took up this subject of Becket for some historical reflections. The cramped work of Tennyson soon leads one to fling the book to the other end of the room, like King Dick, when the good bishops have departed. Becket looms up large, and bursts the green withes of Tennyson, whom we leave on the cushions of the House of Lords.

Becket leads us on to Wolsey and Richelieu. Where they were inferior to Becket was in their lack of religion. Wolsey had little, Richelieu none at all. Massinger, in his "City Madam," introduces a sordid character, Luke Frugal, suddenly transported from grinding poverty to the possession of a vast fortune. A powerful scene depicts his gloating over the bags of gold, in his newly-acquired strong room. His nature is overwhelmed, he sinks prostrate before his gold-god.

The comparison of Becket with Luke is incomplete, but it affords a clue to the idea of this article. Becket was a chivalrous man, and won his spurs as a soldier and Chancellor of England. The tone of his mind was apparently invincibly secular. Richelieu turned from a soldier into an ecclesiastic merely because his elder brother would not accept a bishopric, and this, by the way, was the reason why Bishop Selwyn went to New Zealand.

King Henry thought that, by making Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, he would transform the office into a virtually secular one. Massinger's Luke passes for a humble, pious, unselfish Christian, until the deluge of wealth proves him to be a cruel miser. We can never tell how circumstances will alter men. Look at Robespierre, and his abhorrence of the sentence of death at the outset of his career. The late Pope Pius IX. and his Liberalism when he took the Papacy may also recur to mind.

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The grasp of Richard III. at the Crown of England, as pictured by Shakspeare, "Now do I feel the golden circlet round my brows," was forecast by Becket's anticipation of the heavenly crown. History affords no indication of his mental processes, and Tennyson is far too inferior a dramatic artist to be able even faintly to indicate them. He never gets beyond the outside. In fact his Becket is a shadow, but he succeeds better with Henry.

Becket's view of the treasure chamber was that of Heaven. The earth shrunk to a pimple. He perceived that the highest game to be played in life was that of ignoring every bauble that life can afford. He did not need to go through the experience of Charles V., but would start with the hypothesis and axiom that the whole world was a St. Anthony's cell, and every gratification a temptation save that of pride. The true philosopher was he who pointed to Alexander the Great, and said, "This is pride;" after which he pointed to Diogenes in his tub, saying "This, too, is pride." Becket's washing beggars' feet before breakfast was pride, and not wholly unlike Carlyle's description of Marie Antoinette's relieving the poor—when they came picturesquely in her way.

Yet he is the most conspicuous figure in English history up to Cromwell. This lies in his obstinate withstanding of the monarch with the terrific enginery of the Church. He even went beyond the Pope, dominated the Pope, and foreshadowed Savonarola. In those days the clergy had real, tangible power. They had claws to enforce any clause. The people were with them and this is tremendous. Now the clergy have lost the people, and are only figure-heads. If any one wants to feel the true meaning of the change, this awful revolution, let him refer to M. Lavollee's new work on "Les Ouvriers," the European working classes. In two large volumes, mounting to 1200 pages, he has only dealt with Germany, Russia, Scandinavia, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. France, England, and the United States remain to be examined by this painstaking and convincing writer, who, by his insurmountable statistics, evinces the crushing progress of the levelling forces.

Federation is in the air. It means the carrying out of the principles of the International in a perfect alliance of the working classes throughout the world. Can the Faineants afford to allow Henry George to be devoured by the masses at sixpence a copy? The fundament is shaken. Happy will be the day when the very soldiers refuse to turn their weapons against their fellow men, and prefer to point them against the tyrants.

The religious instinct is planted so deep in human nature that the working classes will be won again by men who believe in religion, but never by a clerical class which believes only so much as is required for its bread and butter. They are stage soldiers, endued with the old red-coats of men who have fought in the page 55 Armageddons of the past. This is a time for the gladiator of God to step into the arena with the pluck of Becket.

We say the pluck of Becket, but the ground on which he chose to fight was hopelessly bad, according to Tennyson and History. However, we daresay the saint, if ever anyone has a chance of speaking to him, will pooh pooh the idea about the trouble being all over the wicked priest, the seduced damsel, and the murdered father. There is a cock-and-bull air about that story.