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ISSUE:  Winter 1927

John Masefield: Biography. Essays in Biography, 1680-1726. By Bonamy Dobree. London and New York: Oxford University Press. $5.00. Anatole France at Home. By Marcel Le Goff. New York: The Adelphi Company. $2.50. Voltaire. By Richard Aldington. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.; New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. $2.50. Pushkin. By Prince D. S. Mirsky. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.; New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. $2.50. Gogol. By Janko Lavrin. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.; New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. $2.50. Swinburne. By Harold Nicolson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.25.

In our self-contradictory age of scientific exactitude and of suspicious scrutiny of inherited traditions and judgments, there is increasing effort to re-appraise the intentions and the achievements of past prophets of Art and Religion. Indeed, we are questioning more and more their premised formulas, not in the spirit of Doctor Blimber’s “Don’t tell me, Sir; I know better!”—but with need and desire to determine whether their truths are true for us, whether they contain enough vitality to stand our modern strains and stresses, or, rather, must linger in the limbo of worn out word-forms, to which, in turn, our own revisions must some day come. Of the inadequacy of language to convey thought or emotion save in a very partial and temporary fashion writers—especially poets—have long complained. As Ibsen’s Thomas Stockman tonically puts it: “Truths are by no means wiry Methusalehs, as some people think. A normally constituted truth lives—let me say—as a rule, seventeen or eighteen years, at the outside twenty years, seldom longer. But truths so stricken in years are always shockingly thin.” Certainly, the problems of our forerunners are largely ours, but the temper in which they addressed themselves to the solution of those problems is not our temper, nor is the tone of their conclusions our tone. No doubt our generation has its full share of complacency and we may usefully remind ourselves that we can patronize the past only at the expense of being ourselves patronized by posterity, who will (let us hope) be sufficiently ready to condemn our cult of the golden calf, our stupid and cruel penology, our mechanic schemes for mass-education, our superstitious belief in an automatic democracy, and the unholy mess of the last decade which we all helped to bring about and the final clearing up of which we feel forced to leave to our successors. And yet, with all our unreason, we want to be reasonable; with all our cruelty, we want to be kind. The very care and minuteness with which we examine and re-examine the great witnesses of the past attest our anxiety for the real advance of which we believe mankind to be capable, even although, as Goethe did not tire of saying, humanity remains the same.

The admirable series of lectures on the art of biography delivered by William Roscoe Thayer at the University of Virginia a few years ago, on the Page-Barbour Foundation, finely express the newer view of the duty and function of the historian:

The constant direction in the evolution of Biography has been from the outward to the inward. . . If you would understand the growth of the Ant of Biography, you must keep constantly in mind the parallel growth in the literary arts, especially in those of poetry and fiction. . . Only those who are fooled themselves, or love to fool others, imagine that life is nothing but surfaces. . . Each person, like the sitter for a painter, requires to be drawn in the attitude and atmosphere which will most fitly reveal him. I regard sympathy as an indispensable qualification in the biographer. . .

And he rightly emphasizes in his analysis of Boswell’s extraordinary success with the life of Johnson the biographer’s sympathy, his skilled selectiveness, his gift of emphasis, and the felicitous transparency of his style. Similarly, Professor Wilbur Cross, in his little essay, “An Outline of Biography,” determines sympathy and style to be the prime desiderata of good work in this kind. I should agree, certainly, with both of them on the point of sympathy if by that is meant not mere understanding, however subtle, of the subject portrayed, but rather that plus the warmth of a real personal affection for the central figure. Is not this combination of elements noticeably lacking in Amy Lowell’s “John Keats” (despite the almost fiercely maternal quality of her regard for the “poor boy”) as against the work of Colvin or of Murry; in Knight’s or Sutherland’s biographies of Wordsworth as against Professor George M. Harper’s; and in some of the recent studies of Shelley as against Mrs. Olwen Ward Campbell’s notable book? The one group of biographers seem chiefly interested in documented views and veracities; the others, not ignoring these indispensables, try, through the intelligent play of a cordial imaginative sympathy (which is the essence of any kind of love worthy of the name), to “add soul” also, making their subject’s

. . . flesh liker and his soul more like, Both in their order.

That, of course, is what we mean in commandeering the somewhat suspect word, psychography, to represent anew an old attitude and purpose in the art of biography. Strachey in England and Bradford in America, with many of their predecessors and contemporaries, have this recognizable power of attuning the pulse of their narrative to the rhythm (or to the assumed rhythm) of the person discussed, of being at once curiously near in presence, but remote in egotism. While respecting the conventions of the genre, they light them up with the warmth of their own humanity. Even Plutarch, who drew so many type-portraits, made them strongly personal ones. The secret of success in true biography, I think, whether your subject be classic or contemporary, is always to remember that he (or she) is not only a creature of his (or her) circumstances and country, but is also a complex, self-unfolding poem on the art of living.


The most individual of the six books to be considered here are the first two and the last. “Essays in Biography” deals capably, at times brilliantly, with the careers and the characters of Sir John Vanbrugh and Joseph Addison. Addison is styled “the first Victorian” because he was “the great example the Victorians fetched from the past world to serve as a model of conduct and the ideal of character. . . Here, amazingly before his time, was a man who believed firmly in their own social philosophy, whose behaviour was regulated by what he would like his neighbours to think of him. Here, that is, was a man truly moral, and enough of an idealist to be blind to the things he did not wish to see.” With this shrewd thesis as a viewpoint looking before and after, the author surveys the life of Addison in nine little chapters of an engaging charm and urbanity. If written with less genius than Thackeray’s famous sketch, this treatment is less sentimental and much more dimensional. We see Addison thinking his calm way through the turbulence of politics, the jealousies and flatteries of fellows and friends, through his own realized or thwarted ambitions, through this doubt and that mistake, through domestic adjustments and literary drudgeries and delights. It is not easy for a biographer, as Courthope found, actually to get at this smiling, self-contained Olympian-in-little; but here he is re-constituted by one who knows the period; who has made up his mind to become, for the time, Addison’s own familiar; who reports and reveals him with an allowed affection, an intimate and tolerant irony. The final words reveal an understanding of his programme humanely critical, and return for comparison and comment to the merits and defects of his pre-Victorian-ism. Equally sound judgment and an even happier liaison with his subject characterize Mr. Dobree’s amiable but trenchant review of the career of Sir John Vanbrugh—unmitigated symbol of the eighteenth century soul.


Anatole France and Voltaire are in certain respects inheritor and ancestor. France had the skilled proseman’s admiration for the aristocratic perfection of Voltaire’s prose style, but, more important than that, he immersed himself in the liberal ideas of the author of the “Henriade,” “Philosophical Letters,” “Alzire,” “Discourses upon Man,” “The History of Charles XII of Sweden,” “The Age of Louis XIV,” “Essay on Manners,” and “Candide.” France’s “La Rotisserie de la Reine Pedauque,” “Les Opinions de Monsieur Jerome Coignard,” and “Le Jardin d’Epicure” all gracefully reflect the influence of Voltaire, especially perhaps the second. As a champion of lost causes, too, France resembles Voltaire, although the former was less courageous. Both writers protested against the stupidity and wickedness of war and other of our social-unsocial customs, and both knew at times how it felt to fear the reprisals of the forces of Ignorance and Intolerance. Of the two, Voltaire was the fuller and freer, France the more subtly imaginative artist.

Mr. Aldington has written for the “Republic of Letters” series a relatively brief but skilfully proportioned life of Voltaire. He discreetly declines to compete with Desnoire-sterres or Lanson, but proposes simply to “make a bridge between the mass of existing Voltaire knowledge and the people who would like to know the essence of it, yet have neither time nor desire to make a close study. . . The aim of the writer is to provide a guide-book to the continent of Voltaire.” This aim is consistently pursued and usefully realized in two parts—the one biographical, the other critical. In the dissolving scenes of the life most interest attaches to Voltaire’s exile in England, his relations with Madame du Chatelet, his sojourns at Berlin and at Potsdam, and his patriarchate at Ferney. In his desire to treat Voltaire’s works at once concisely and comprehensively in Part Two, the author has perhaps over-departmentalized both Voltaire and his writings; for, various as that great mind was, its vigor and “drive” gave it a unity that its versatility sometimes tends to conceal. Mr. Aldington does not give us a chart of Voltaire, but rather a “log”—an informing and fortunate story, to be sure—as he pilots the reader “round the archipelago of his books” and skirts the islands of Voltaire’s poetry, drama, histories, philosophy, literary criticism, and letters. There is a Voltaire synthesis which the author apparently does not see, but the portrait he has given us provides an excellent introduction and first visit to this citizen of the world. Besides, as Voltaire himself reminds us, “the secret of wearying your reader is to tell him everything,” and again, “to make a good book, one must have a prodigious length of time and the patience of a saint.”

Certainly, m. Le Goff’s work shows that he has not possessed the first of these qualifications. His book is poorly organized, is in point of method mere chop and chat; yet its spirit largely redeems it, for at any rate “the patience of a saint” was his as he visited Anatole France week after week at La Bechellerie, the little estate near Tours purchased late in 1914. But Le Goff, too, files a caveat, claiming for his book only the merit of sincerity. It has more than that. It sometimes makes shrewd, swift comment upon the Master’s characteristics; and sometimes reports a dramatic bit of dialogue on explosive subjects that will have to be considered in any large appraisal to come. And we must salute the fidelity that has drawn and framed for us so many vignettes of Anatole France in ironic rapier-play with would-be victims, French or American; in full prophetic flow at Tridon’s bookshop, where disciples (and dissidents, too) foregathered; in an affectionately teasing humor toward Madame France; in stern reprehension of the imbecilities and indecisivenesses of war leaders; in incisive summings-up of the characters of great and less great contemporaries; and in moods of personal sorrow and gaiety. The translation, unfortunately, is hasty and careless, but the flavor of the work is not too much impaired.

That nothing but good should be spoken of the dead is a rule of taste, temporally limited, sanctioned by usage rather than by a large ethic, and not very useful to historical truth. As an Irish friend of mine remarks, now that France has passed away, why shouldn’t he have a little critical purgatory? We have all been so charmed with the wise beauty of his language and with the amazing variety of his accomplishments that we may have overlooked the fact that with him changes in mood (his mood is largely subjunctive) seem to dictate and control changes of mind. In other words, he is a sensitivist rather than a seer, a delicately mystical cynical observer of the surface absurdities and banalities of life rather than a great creative prophet with synthesizing aim and ability. His dilettantism makes its rightful protest against the supposed magical essences of our human formulas and institutions, but it is, even when most acute and penetrating, a disillusioned dilettantism. To deny him sympathy, despite his egoism, would be altogether unfair. He pities—but love is another matter. Pity for all victims of all intolerance; a cloistering of self in scholar-culture; a serene melancholy in the face of life’s riddle; and an unfailing sense of style—these are among France’s lineaments. Instead of striking a balance he too often plays upon either the credit or the debit side of the ledger. In these conversations he censures patriotism in one breath and defends it in another. He denies eras and affirms them. His old age finds existence now beautiful, now intensely disagreeable. Even so docile a disciple as Le Goff can make nothing of France’s sympathy for Bolshevism. “His brazen adherence to principles his whole life belied gave the .impression of a forced attitude maintained not by a sympathetic adherence of the mind, but by a persistent act of the will.” He attributes France’s attitude to his scepticism, his iconoclasm, and his world-weariness. His views of Caillaux, Clemenceau, Lloyd-George, Wilson, and other political figures are as shrewd and sometimes as just as his remarks on Verlaine, Bergson, Bourget, Rolland, and Tolstoy. Perhaps the best that can be said of his books is what Piaget Shanks has said of them, that they “will best recall the delicate age which found its object in an Epicurean cult of art and self. For he alone has avoided the formal dangers of its romantic subjectivity, building not in agate nor in porphyry, but in the cool yet glowing marbles of the Greeks.”


The treatments of Pushkin and of Gogol are, like Aldington’s “Voltaire,” whose format is also theirs, limited and concise. Nikolay Vasilievitch Gogol-Yanovsky (1809-32) sought to be at once realist and romantic, because life is so and because he believed life and literature to be co-terminous. In his naturalistic examination of the commonplace he has the idealistic purpose of discovering something of the intense and eternal significance behind the apparently more sordid aspects of life, exhibiting thus what his biographer calls an “inverted romanticism.” And he had much more humor-flexible term as that is—than we normally associate with Russian writers, although his humor did not prevent him from regarding himself as a potential historian. Indeed, he gained in 1834 and abandoned in 1835 a professorship in that field, and once planned a nine-volume history of the Middle Ages. “Taras Bulba,” however, is a really great historical novel. Although in his later morbidity he disliked “The Inspector,” it remains one of the best among Russian comedies, in the clever plot Pushkin gave Gogol, the zest for types, the gay humor and the natural dialogue. The tales of Little Russia found in “The Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka,” “Mirgorod” and “Petersburg Notes” are equally lifelike and exhibit an even finer art. His masterpiece, the scheme of which was again supplied by his friend Pushkin, is the unfinished trilogy, “Dead Souls,” partly a one-person prose epic of the adventures of Chichikov, its chief hero; and partly a reflection of huge, various, sprawling Russia. “It is just a series of genre pictures, of types painted with an incredible skill and plastic sense.”

Mr. Lavrin has placed Gogol accurately in his initial chapter, showing how Pushkin and Gogol, “the two main pillars at the entrance to modern Russian literature,” and Lermontov, who wrote the first Russian introspective novel, were the true inspirers of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Dostoevsky. With similar discernment he analyzes, compares, and evaluates Gogol’s chief works, although he makes a rather superfluous apology for doing so, pointing out that “it is impossible to understand his works unless we approach him both as man and as writer, thus combining the aesthetic and the psychological analysis.” Is there any other really effective method in dealing with an artist? He concludes that “the whole of Russian literature fluctuates between the great and simple objectivity bequeathed to it by Pushkin, and that morbid subjectivity which received its first impulse from Gogol.”

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) was a less complex figure. Of mixed origin (he had Ethiopian blood in his veins), he proved an indifferent student in his schooldays at Tsarskoe Selo and a frank profligate afterward in Petersburg. After a visit to the south, fruitful in literary inspirations, he lived at Mikhaylovskoye, continuing to set down in verse his vivid and somewhat Byronic transcripts of the life about him. Following his marriage in 1831 he wrote his famous story “The Captain’s Daughter”—a landmark in realistic Russian literature. He received a mortal wound in a duel fought at Petersburg in 1837. His boyish work was precocious, as in “Ruslan and Lyudmila;” his mature work remarkably prolific. His masterpieces are “Eugeni Onegin,” the famous drama of “Boris Godunov,” and the poem called “The Bronze Horseman.” Pushkin, like Gogol, rescues romanticism from mere sentimentality and understands the dignity of the real. He mingles hardly less successfully the impetuous passion of youth with a purity of technique almost unrivalled in Russian. His relation to Gogol has already been indicated. He was not only a great artist, but evoked by his psychological prescriptions greatness in Gogol. Prince Mirsky’s book is more informative than critical, yet it relieves the factual framework of a rather dramatic life with an occasional excursion into creative criticism, especially when dealing with the poetry of Pushkin; but much more should have been made of his technique in both prose and verse, his dramatic skill, and his persistent influence.


Mr. Nicolson’s success in disengaging the master from the meretrician in Tennyson has led him to attempt a similar task for Swinburne. But it is more difficult here, because Tennyson is simpler in his poetic processes and because he has as yet had no treatment at once so intimate and so thorough as that which Mr. Gosse has given Swinburne. The present essay (first in the New Series of “English Men of Letters”) is as criticism almost too facile, but it sometimes achieves searching judgments. The author explains the present reaction against Swinburne as due in part to the general feeling about the monotonous fixity of his technique, and to the general opinion that his work lacks intellectual and spiritual core. Admitting that Swinburne has “no sense of audience,” that the “acoustic tremor” of his words lulls overmuch and hypnotizes, that he makes an “ill-organized use of images,” Mr. Nicolson shows that none of these reasons for the reaction is so cogent as the very abnormality of Swinburne. He is a specialist poet, and an intensely personal and eccentric one, whose work is limited by its creator’s arrested development and by his relative imperviousness to impressions, especially after 1857. His real internal centre, thinks Mr. Nicolson, was made up of “two dominant and conflicting impulses, namely, the impulse towards revolt and the impulse towards submission.” No little is said and quoted to support this by no means strained conclusion, but to the mention of these two impulses (which both appear in many other poets, as in Sophocles, Shelley and Clough) I should add Swinburne’s dreamy detachment from empirical realities, which grew at last into a longing for deliverance from the need and choice of either submission or revolt. Still, there is no doubt that “the balanced tension between the two impulses” does give to Swinburne’s best work (as in “Ata-lanta” and “Songs before Sunrise”) a sustained singing harmony of vibrating power and charm.

Mr, Nicolson’s review of the poet’s elfin boyhood and eccentric Oxford days touches accurately the personal influences which quickened him then, and the motives and enthusiasms which drove him into his magnificent but sometimes muddled hero-worship. This hero-worship “was a deep and persistent religion, and the most potent of his incantations was ever ‘Let us now praise famous men.’ “

The critical treatments that follow of “Atalanta,” “Poems and Ballads” (first and second series), and “Songs before Sunrise” are valuable, although Mr. Nicolson’s anxiety that these treatments shall sustain his central thesis (and they do sustain it) makes him seem unaware of the merits of poems not quite “in the picture.” The chapter on the Watts-Dunton tutelage at “The Pines” in Putney gives us too little of the personal impression Swinburne made on those suburbanites who valued his presence and quietly observed his ordered outside routine. The identification of roundels with rondeaux is unfortunate, and in general this chapter is a disappointment. But the quick appreciation that follows of the qualities of the poet’s prose style, good and bad, and of his worth as a critic, is one of the best parts of the book. I like especially the emphasis upon Swinburne’s belief that love (in the sense of imaginative sympathy) is indispensable to good criticism. As Emerson puts it, “Every man is entitled to be judged by his best moment,” and Swinburne himself: “Love and judgment must be one in those who would look into such high and lovely things.” But the biographer becomes a little trite and tiresome when he adds that while “sympathy is admittedly essential to criticism,” yet it “should be mated with discrimination, and praise should keep careful accounts.” We all know that Swinburne is not a judicial critic, yet we need his criticism, as we need Lamb’s and Blake’s, and for much the same reasons. I wish, too, that the love of children which all three of these men possessed might have been made more of here, and that Swinburne’s religion might have emerged more clearly in these pages as the finely poetic (and therefore religious) thing it is at its long and high moment.


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