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Romanticism Run to Seed

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

Among the many delusions entertained by the gen-

eral public on subjects about which they know noth-ing whatsoever, one of the most frequent is that of literary spontaneity. Although every real author is well aware that his task demands austere training, bitter effort, and often writhing agony, the layman gaily pictures him as dashing off poems, plays, or stories, like a medium indulging in automatic writing. Once, however, and only once in the long history of English literature, there was an amazing interval when the popular fallacy of spontaneity was accepted by the authors themselves. Flouting the solemn traditions of their calling, they let riotous improvisation and gay insouciance gambol unchecked.

It was the transitional period, in the later 1820’s and the 1830’s, when the paladins of the Romantic Revival were dead or superannuated, and the new generation of earnest Victorians were yet in the chrysalis. During that irresponsible epoch the leading writers of England, no matter what their individual traits might be, adhered unanimously to the agreeable concept of literature without sweat. Accordingly, they poured into their magazines and books a copious hash of personalities, bad puns, trite poems, ferocious prejudices, and literary horseplay, that fascinates and exasperates the reader at every turn. Thumbing their noses at established literary forms, the authors mingled fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, grave and gay, drama, prose, and verse, at their own sweet will. Literature was on a spree.

The reason was not any deficiency in ability. On the contrary, examples will show that in natural endowment they were anything but mediocrities. They were prodigious in memory, in erudition, in fecundity. Probably these very gifts were in part responsible for their failure to achieve creative artistry: expression came so easily that no discipline seemed to be required.

It is clear that no single author or publication can be taken as outstanding to typify the whole. As there was an exceptionally large group of writers of equal rank and similar practice, and as their resemblance consisted primarily in being stridently individual, we shall have to consider several of them before we can fully recognize the peculiar informality and impudent swagger of the time. Spontaneity and haste being the primary characteristics, we may turn first to the mode of publication best adapted to such methods—the magazines.

Prior to this time, relinquishing the staid and ponderous dignity of the “Gentleman’s,” though still maintaining the portentous weight of anonymity, the Quarterly and the Edinburgh Reviews had become organs of bitter political partisanship, and often of personal spite. It remained for Blackwood’s to take the further step of making copy out of its editors themselves. Their writings were often as rancorous as the older reviews, but the frank acknowledgment of personality seemed to dilute the venom, and at any moment ribald laughter was apt to mingle with the snarls.

The heart of Blackwood’s was the “Noctes Ambrosianae,” a hybrid production perfectly in keeping with the times. Under fictitious names which eventually in real life almost superseded their own, the editor and his contributors were recorded as carrying on interminable conversations upon every conceivable subject. Although there was characterization of the various speakers, it was not drama, for there was no plot, no beginning or end; although it dealt with politics, literature, philosophy, history, it was not essay, for there was no unity of topic or logical development. Veering in theme and mood according to immediate association of ideas, digressing to include poems, anecdotes, and other miscellanea, it flowed on from month to month, shapeless as life itself.

The authorship was indeed composite, yet not as it pretended to be: Christopher North wrote most of it, and put the words into the mouths of his friends, but on occasion they also took their share, and put the words into his. Thus, although the personnel of the dialogues was made up of the men who contributed regularly to the rest of the magazine, their actual traits became gradually caricatured, until we find James Hogg mournfully endeavoring to assert his respectability to a public that insisted on regarding the Ettrick Shepherd as a literal portrait of him. Even the publisher who employed them was an object of their affectionate disrespect, and his name, lending itself to their inveterate punning, became “Old Ebony.”

The Rabelaisian Christopher North, presiding genius of these symposia, was none other than the learned Professor John Wilson, holder of the chair of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh; but there was not the affinity between his writings and his vocation that we find in the earlier philosopher who was also a writer of dialogues. He strove his hardest to represent Christopher North as a lover of good food and strong drink, of shooting and fishing and pugilism; and his criteria of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good were Toryism and Caledonianism.

His natural advantages were amazing. At Oxford he was fabulous for physical and mental prowess alike: his twenty-three-foot leap across the Cherwell in Christ Church meadows, his walk from London to Oxford in a single night, his rout of a chiding proctor by reciting the whole of the “Essay on Man,” passed into tradition; yet he took his degree with highest honors and warm testimonials from his examiners. He had already inherited fifty thousand pounds, and he invested some of it in a beautiful estate on Windermere, where he became intimate with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and De Quincey. Here he spent several years in his favorite pastimes of boating, cock-fighting, and versification. His poems were eloquent and vigorous, but diffuse; the longer ones smack of Southey rather than of his other neighbors.

When he was abruptly reduced to poverty by the defalcation of an uncle, he removed to his mother’s house in Edinburgh, and was called to the bar. Already bearing a reputation for eccentricity, he was regarded as little short of a lunatic when he took his young wife on a two-months’ walking and fishing tour of the Highlands. His enthusiasm and unsophistication brought him friends in all walks of life, but not much professional business.

William Blackwood, when looking for fresh talent to invigorate his bantling magazine, picked upon two young barristers, and gave them free rein. Their gifts proved to be ideally complementary. One was Wilson, burly, ruddy, yellow-haired, blue-eyed, convivial with all the world; the other was the slim and sallow John Gibson Lockhart, elegant, sarcastic, aloof. Both plunged jubilantly into the job of bedevilling the exalted Whigs, and both were without scruple in using ad hominem methods. Their opinions being essentially topical, they paid no heed to consistency, and someone who was damned beyond redemption in one issue might be glorified in another. The two men represented perfectly the trite contrast of the bludgeon and the rapier: Wilson was a joyous brawler, with tenderness and humor behind his bluster; Lockhart was a cool, mordant tormentor, without bowels of compassion.

Encouraged by the public excitement they aroused, they allowed the wildest fancies and maddest pranks to figure in the magazine. They invented scores of imaginary contributors, and went so far as to make free with the names of real people. When Leigh Hunt protested against one of their lies, they concocted a letter acknowledging the authorship, signing the name of a prominent and dignified Whig baronet, one of their chief enemies, who grew apoplectic when Hunt assailed him. A more agreeable hoax centered around one of the leading dentists of Glasgow, on whom they fathered many of their doggerels, with all the circumstantial details of his address and personal habits. As these became popular, the worthy dentist began to believe that he really was the author: he sang the ditties in public, appeared in Liverpool as guest of honor at a literary banquet, and received suggestions from a publisher regarding a collected edition. On the other hand, an indignant victim applied a horsewhip to Blackwood, and was thrashed by the publisher, in return; and Wilson and Lockhart also showed their valor by challenging one of their critics to a duel, but as he was anonymous, and preferred to remain so, nothing came of the affair.

In spite of the well founded fury and hatred of a large part of the public, both young men simultaneously achieved conspicuous preferment: Lockhart became the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, and Wilson was elected professor of moral philosophy. Amid general astonishment, Wilson proved to be a scholarly and eloquent lecturer, but he spent so much earnest labor on his lectures that he seemed all the more exuberant when he turned to his magazine contributions. Neither he nor Lockhart entirely relinquished more ambitious literary pretensions: each of them produced several novels, but strangely enough the liveliness which marked their periodical writing evaporated under the responsibility of following the great tradition, and the novels are frigid enough. No matter what else engaged them, however, the demands of Blackwood’s were inexorable, and after Lockhart removed to London to edit the Quarterly, Wilson supplied a still larger share of the contents. In 1830 alone he provided thirty articles.

As so vigorous a publication inevitably attracted as strongly as it repelled, before long new contributors offered themselves. Among them was one whom the publisher and his associates regarded with mixed feelings, for his brilliance was accompanied by an irresponsible violence that worried even these champions of free speaking. For a time his offerings arrived from Cork, and he mystified Blackwood not only by using a variety of pseudonyms, but also by refusing all compensation. His work was distinguished by great versatility, and by a mingling of deep erudition with whimsical humor. One of his early contributions was a rendering of “Chevy Chase” into Latin, retaining the original metre, and including a few stanzas in Greek also, for good measure. Next he involved the magazine in a libel suit by an elaborate proof that one of the leading professors of Edinburgh University was an ignoramus, a plagiarist, and an infidel. Among the imaginary contributors who had already figured in the magazine was an Irish officer, Sir Morgan O’Doherty, and gradually the real Irishman began to adopt this as his usual cognomen.

At length he appeared in person, frightening the publisher by pretending to be another revengeful victim. He spent a convivial fortnight with the group, and for the next ten years was second only to Christopher North in bulk of contributions. Irish songs, drinking songs, songs in thieves’ patter, parodies, political satires, translations of foreign poems into English and English poems into foreign languages, adaptations of Horace to modern themes—these were some of his typical works, and they were but the by-products of other activities. The author, William Maginn, had already made a reputation in his own country as a juvenile prodigy. The son of a schoolmaster, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, at the amazing age of ten, ranking tenth among more than a hundred matriculants, and already proficient in Hebrew, as well as the usual classical subjects. He soon proceeded to Sanscrit and Syriac, and graduated with distinction before he was fourteen. Returning to Cork, he pursued his studies in a dozen languages, while teaching in his father’s school. At twenty he succeeded his father as principal, and three years later received the degree of LL.D. In spite of these dignities, however, he was a rollicking, reckless soul, and gathered round him a congenial group of young wits who divided their time between debates and debauches. By the time he was twenty-five, Dr. Maginn was looking for wider opportunities, and at the same time that he first contributed to Blackwood’s he also began, under similar pseu-donymity, to submit copious and varied material to a prominent London paper, The Literary Gazette. For several years he did his writing chiefly in the class-room (his visit to Edinburgh was a vacation-jaunt); but on marrying he removed to London to devote himself wholly to authorship. A little later he spent several months in Paris as correspondent of the short-lived newspaper that John Murray founded under demoniacal possession in the shape of a stripling named Disraeli, and on its demise he stayed to make an intensive study of the argot and habits of the underworld. His one sustained literary work, produced about this time, was a mad burlesque novel entitled “Whitehall,” wherein the Duke of Wellington, Coleridge, and many other celebrities of the day figured in wild adventures such as a revolution in London, a siege of the Tower, a flooding of the Thames tunnel, and the execution of Huskisson, the Colonial Secretary.

His work for various newspapers and magazines began to bring him a good income, and he associated with many political and social leaders. With prematurely white hair, dark luminous eyes, a frame weakened by early study, a slight stammer, and a strong Cork brogue, he became one of the most popular literary men of London. He had usually some indigent Irish youth in tow, helping him to get a start in the profession of letters. Though never happier than when writing some slashing libellous article, he was the kindliest of men, and never got over being amazed when his victims harbored malice toward him.

As might be expected among such individualists, a squabble eventually arose between Maginn and the Blackwood group, and he decided to establish a rival magazine. Strolling with a friend through the London streets, he stepped at random into a bookseller’s shop and made his proposal, which was promptly accepted. In this characteristically rash and haphazard manner originated Eraser’s Magazine, destined for the next generation to be the most enterprising English periodical. Many Blackwood contributors associated themselves with it, and the familiar devices were used: imaginary dialogues, impudent references to real people, and fictitious characterizations of contributors. Thus, for example, some of the art critiques and satires on fashionable society were attributed to “Michael Angelo Titmarsh” and “Jeames Yel-lowplush,” whereby a young dilettante named Thackeray got his first training in fiction, later to be turned to account in depicting Maginn as Captain Shandon, in “Pendennis.” And Eraser’s was the only publication that offered hospitality to that strange hodge-podge of novelized philosophy, “Sartor Resartus,” the Life and Opinions of Herr Diogenes Teufelsdrockh.

It was Maginn, however, who carried the chief burden, usually under the pseudonym of Oliver Yorke. After neglecting his task till the last possible minute, he would spend three or four nights in furious energy, sustained by whisky punch, and produce sixty or seventy pages of material, without a pause to revise or to consult reference books. Dates, quotations, details of the most erudite topics, flowed from his memory. He probably collaborated with E. V. Kenealy in the long essay convicting Thomas Moore of plagiarism by tracing some of his lines through dozens of antecedents. Later he wrote a series of brilliant analyses of Shakespearean characters. Possibly his best work was a group of translations from Homer in ballad style, subsequently highly praised by Arnold, Gladstone, and others. But even these were extemporized at odd moments.

Like their northern confreres, the Fraserians met with physical violence. One of the reviews which Maginn tossed off in a tipsy hour dealt slanderously with a novel by an aristocratic amateur, the Honorable Grantley Berkeley, The author, assisted by his brother and a hired bruiser, thrashed the publisher of the magazine so brutally that his death eventually resulted. Maginn promptly challenged Berkeley to a duel and they exchanged three shots before being halted by their seconds. Undeterred, Maginn reviewed Berkeley’s later writings with undiminished severity.

The Doctor was unfortunately endowed with two incompatible traits—a convivial disposition and a weak resistance to the influence of alcohol. He came to rely on liquor to sustain him in his bursts of literary energy, and often it ended by vanquishing him. Liberality decreased his income, intemperance alienated some of his employers, and so, gradually, he was reduced to a garret, to flight from his creditors, to gaol for debt. Humiliated, and ignored by his politically powerful friends, but charming and witty to the last, he died of consumption in his forty-eighth year, dictating the last of his Homeric ballads on his death-bed.

Among the gifted vagrants from Cork who clustered around Maginn and contributed spasmodically to his magazine, the most prominent was a renegade priest named Francis Sylvester Mahony. While in the Irish College at Rome, in a fit of nostalgia he had written, on the wall beside his bed, a song which later became famous, “The Shandon Bells.” Later he taught for a while in a Jesuit college in Ireland, until a wild carousal with some of his students led to his dismissal. Eventually, ordained but not beneficed, he drifted to London. On hearing of the death of a parish priest who had been an intimate of his family, he wrote “The Apology for Lent,” by Father Prout, incumbent of Water-glasshill, using the gentle old priest’s real name and address. This was accepted by Fraser’s, and proved so popular that the author retained the name of Father Prout in his later contributions. A splendid linguist, he did his best work in poetical translations. His chief tour de force was a translation of “The Groves of Blarney” into French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. Taking his cue from Maginn, he tormented Moore with charges of plagiarism, but in a more ingenious manner: he translated Moore’s poems into French and Latin, attributed them to obscure authors, and then accused Moore of imitating them.

His restless disposition led Mahony to wander widely in unfrequented corners of the Levant, and he spent his later years in Rome and Paris, snuffy and grumpy, contributing vivid sketches and gossip to English newspapers.

Among the peculiarities resultant from the improvising habits of these groups is the degree of collaboration which prevailed. Scholars have disputed interminably in allocating some of the Blackwood articles to Wilson, Lockhart, Maginn, or D. M. Moir, and Fraser articles to Maginn, Mahony, Kenealy, or Frank Stack Murphy. As a matter of fact, the customary sense of individual proprietorship seems to have vanished: writing under pseudonyms, holding their opinions and methods in common, and frequently discussing their schemes with one another, they collaborated either consciously or unconsciously in almost everything they wrote. To them, literature was frozen conversation, and, like conversation, it needed more than one participant.

Some of their colleagues, however, were not so self-effacing. Among the occasional contributors to Fraser’s was the man who had given Maginn his first employment when he settled in London—Theodore Hook, editor of the scurrilous Sunday paper, John Bull. Hook’s personal reputation as a wit and entertainer was great enough to enhance the success of any work that could be attributed to him. His most popular novels, instead of bearing separate titles in the ordinary way, were published as a series under the name of “Sayings and Doings.” His fat form, purple face, and twinkling black eyes were welcome in every walk of society, from royal salons to the prisons in which he spent several years. In him the prevailing talent for improvisation rose to the level of genius.

Like so many of his contemporaries, he was precocious, but for ingenuity rather than erudition. His year at Harrow was distinguished chiefly by pranks instigated by Byron, and his two terms at Oxford yielded only his famous reply when asked by the Vice-Chancellor to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles: “Certainly, sir; forty if you wish.” His more significant education, however, was acquired in the theatrical green-rooms. His father was a prolific musical composer, with a penchant for light opera, and at the age of sixteen Theodore supplied him with a libretto which was successful enough to open the way for others. By the time he came of age, he had produced a dozen librettos, farces, and melodramas. The plots, to be sure, were nearly all stolen from French plays, but Hook spiced them liberally with ranting tirades, vulgar epithets, and, above all, excruciating puns.

With brazen effrontery, and some talent as a mimic, he took the lead in many of the crude—and often cruel—practical jokes which were fashionable at the time. His masterpiece was the great “Berners Street Hoax,” which disrupted a whole district of London. He devoted weeks to writing several thousand letters, each plausibly summoning the recipient to a certain house on the same day. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor rubbed elbows with undertakers, barbers, poulterers, coal-heavers, all conceivable classes of humanity, striving to deliver wares or obtain employment, while Hook, from a rented room across the way, watched the indescribable turmoil.

Even more astonishing than his puns and his hoaxes, however, was his gift of extemporizing. After meeting a roomful of people for the first time, he could sit down at the piano, play a popular air, and fit to it a song, describing each person, by name, in perfect rhyme and metre, without a pause. Any unexpected interruption could be incorporated in the song with equal facility. He used to boast that he could make a pun on any subject, or extemporize a song on any topic to any tune, and was never known to fail when sceptics put him to the test. Naturally, he soon became one of the most popular dinner-guests in London, and the patronage of the veteran Sheridan introduced him into the highest circles. The Prince Regent was so entertained that he appointed him, at the age of twenty-four, treasurer of Mauritius, a sinecure bringing in about two thousand five hundred pounds annually.

After he had spent five idle years of gambling and drinking in the tropical island, deficiencies were found in his accounts (which he had trusted entirely to subordinates) and he was recalled to England in disgrace. Arriving penniless, he turned to political pamphleteering as a source of income, and for the next five years, while his trial dragged on, he supplied the principal ammunition for the Tory forces in the campaign of abuse and muckraking which centered upon the relations of George IV and his wife. His weekly paper, John Bull, every number of which pilloried the queen and her friends in scandalous doggerel, singable to popular tunes, had an immense success. In prose, also, the paper maintained the campaign of slander and ridicule, until the public attitude toward the case was profoundly affected. Although Hook was widely recognized as the author, the secret was loyally maintained; a dummy editor was employed, and in spite of repeated fines and imprisonments neither he nor the printer confessed the name of their contributor. Accordingly, his victims were obliged to find another line of attack, and they used their political power to have the long-delayed investigation of his treasurership ended with a severe verdict —the payment of twelve thousand pounds, in default of which Hook spent two years in prison.

By this time he had. found his true metier in fiction. Among his contributions to John Bull, the only ones of more than topical interest were the “Ramsbottom Papers,” the supposed production of a newly-rich shopkeeper’s wife, full of misspellings and malapropisms. From this he proceeded to writing novels, which appeared in rapid succession and proved extremely popular. They were improbable, slipshod, often vulgar, but vigorous and amusing. Some of them were overloaded with melodramatic aristocrats, but the best of them, such as “Gilbert Gurney,” had effective realism and racy humor. His eccentric characters, though rather overdrawn, drew the breath of life, and his varied experiences supplied an air of bluff honesty to his pictures of high and low life alike. For his comic scenes he drew freely upon his own notorious hoaxes. Unquestionably Hook formed the most important link between the eighteenth-century novelists and Dickens.

He produced the novels at top speed, concurrently with editing several periodicals, “ghost-writing” biographies, and yet spending the bulk of his time in conversation and conviviality. From his novels alone he received, on an average, a thousand pounds apiece, and at the height of its vogue John Bull yielded him two thousand a year. He was, however, incurably extravagant, and always in debt. Moreover, he was living with a woman of low station, who cared for him loyally for twenty years, and bore him five children, but never became his wife. He therefore led a sort of double existence, frequenting fashionable clubs, and visiting the town and country houses of great nobles, yet concealing his real home not only from his creditors but from most of his friends. When he died, exactly a year before his friend Maginn, he was in debt for thirty thousand pounds.

Although every one of them could turn out light verse as quickly as their pens could travel, the extemporizers heretofore described have been primarily prosateurs. The picture must be completed by including one who followed the same principles in serious poetry.

When William Maginn paid his first flying visit to London, and introduced himself to Jerdan, the editor of The Literary Gazette, he became acquainted with one of its most valued contributors. This was a rosy, round-faced, soft-eyed girl of nineteen, with an impulsive friendliness of manner that prim spinsters of both sexes condemned as “forward.” Her widely-famous initials, “L. E. L.,” represented the name Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

Born and brought up in Chelsea, she seldom traveled beyond her suburban circle. In her early teens, some of her verses were shown to Jerdan, who soon began to publish her work in his paper. At eighteen she brought out her first volume of poems. Becoming Jerdan’s assistant editor, she often contributed as many as half a dozen poems and sketches to each weekly issue of The Literary Gazette; four or five volumes of her poems appeared; and later she was industrious in editing some of the ornate Annuals that were in vogue at the time. One of her volumes of poems was entitled “The Improvvisatrice,” and her methods of composition justified her friends in identifying her with the title role. She tried her hand at novels and drama also, but it was her lyric poetry that endeared her to all the devotees of sensibility.

Her poems were melodious and fluent, with a sentimental melancholy that seemed absurd to those who met the sprightly little author. There was absolutely no distinction of phrase or thought: her poems were too numerous, and her experience too limited, to allow real originality. Like many women writers, she could spin pretty words into graceful metres without having anything definite to say. Unfortunately no disciplinary force existed: the editors petted her, the critics flattered her, the general public wrote “fan letters” to her, and her family, who apparently gave her no guidance in discretion of conduct, let alone in literary principles, were only too glad to absorb the large sums that she earned.

For fifteen years she poured out her facile lays, but with fame came envy and gossip, which reached a head when she became engaged to John Forster, later the biographer of Dickens. Her professional intercourse with editors and writers had been conducted with the warmth of a vivacious young woman. She was accused of undue intimacy with Jerdan, whose children were as old as she was; but perhaps better founded were the rumors of her relations with Maginn. He had probably proposed to her during his first visit to London; and when he returned several years later, bringing a bride from Ireland, he certainly became L. E. L.’s chief press-agent and adviser. Although the gossip was investigated and disproved, she was so humiliated that she broke off her engagement with Forster. A little while later, after a short acquaintance, she married a colonial governor and accompanied him to West Africa, where she soon died under mysterious circumstances, apparently from accidentally taking poison. Thus one of the most uneventful of lives ended in scenes of lurid melodrama.

The foregoing sketches of half a dozen writers who were among the most popular of the era exemplify the prevailing habits of writing in the various types of literature—fiction, poetry, essay, and the peculiar hybrid forms which flourished in that interlude only. There remains the task of accounting for the phenomenon. Whence arose this delusion of literature as something spontaneous, topical, conversational, and amorphous? The answer is not far to seek.

The improvising interlude was the inevitable sequel to the great romantic epoch. It indicates that the principles and practice of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and the others had been accepted, for lesser men were adopting them. The romantics had gained their fame by defying traditional rules of technique and theme; but what they had discarded were artificial shackles, not the fundamentals of artistic unity and significance. The romantics had agreed that literature should deal primarily with the personal emotions of the author; but in men who are not lofty of soul, personal emotions are usually jealousy and spite, or else high spirits and conviviality. Wordsworth had insisted that poetry should use the diction and subject-matter of everyday life; but few people see the common things around them with “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused,” as he did. Lamb and De Quincey had turned their passing fancies and trivial experiences into lasting literature; but they possessed rare charm of personality that makes subsequent generations glad of the privilege of intimacy with them. Byron had fostered the impression that his noble nature would not stoop to revision, declaring, “I am like the tiger; if I miss the first spring, I return growling into the jungle”; but the habits of the tiger are not so impressive when inherited by the tabby cat.

The pernicious effects of these doctrines injured every writer who was not positively first-class. Even such good second-raters as Thomas Moore and Leigh Hunt were infected by the virus, and when it spread to the mob of lesser men and women, lacking any earnest sense of dedication, their work became trivial, conceited, or simply dull. Even the loveliest flowers, if uncontrolled, become coarse and obtrusive, caricatures of their cultivated selves; and in the improvising interlude the choice flowers of romanticism had run to seed.

By 1840 the reaction had set in, and the Victorians brought back to literature the two great requisites that it had temporarily lost—serious purpose and artistic taste. Dickens was Hook plus social conscience; Tennyson was Miss Landon plus artistic conscience; Arnold and Ruskin were Wilson and Maginn plus both. Even the hedonists, like Fitzgerald and Swinburne, no matter how much they might proclaim self-indulgence and languor, had learned that those principles could not be applied to literary art.


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