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   Chapter 1 INTRODUCTORY.

Yesterdays with Authors By James Thomas Fields Characters: 14646

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Surrounded by the portraits of those I have long counted my friends, I like to chat with the people about me concerning these pictures, my companions on the wall, and the men and women they represent. These are my assembled guests, who dropped in years ago and stayed with me, without the form of invitation or demand on my time or thought. They are my eloquent silent partners for life, and I trust they will dwell here as long as I do. Some of them I have known intimately; several of them lived in other times; but they are all my friends and associates in a certain sense.

To converse with them and of them-

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past"-

is one of the delights of existence, and I am never tired of answering questions about them, or gossiping of my own free will as to their every-day life and manners.

If I were to call the little collection in this diminutive house a Gallery of Pictures, in the usual sense of that title, many would smile and remind me of what Foote said with his characteristic sharpness of David Garrick, when he joined his brother Peter in the wine trade: "Davy lived with three quarts of vinegar in the cellar, calling himself a wine merchant."

My friends have often heard me in my "garrulous old age" discourse of things past and gone, and know what they bring down on their heads when they request me "to run over," as they call it, the faces looking out upon us from these plain unvarnished frames.

Let us begin, then, with the little man of Twickenham, for that is his portrait which hangs over the front fireplace. An original portrait of Alexander Pope I certainly never expected to possess, and I must relate how I came by it. Only a year ago I was strolling in my vagabond way up and down the London streets, and dropped in to see an old picture-shop,-kept by a man so thoroughly instructed in his calling that it is always a pleasure to talk with him and examine his collection of valuables, albeit his treasures are of such preciousness as to make the humble purse of a commoner seem to shrink into a still smaller compass from sheer inability to respond when prices are named. At No. 6 Pall Mall one is apt to find Mr. Graves "clipp'd round about" by first-rate canvas. When I dropped in upon him that summer morning he had just returned from the sale of the Marquis of Hastings's effects. The Marquis, it will be remembered, went wrong, and his debts swallowed up everything. It was a wretched stormy day when the pictures were sold, and Mr. Graves secured, at very moderate prices, five original portraits. All the paintings had suffered more or less decay, and some of them, with their frames, had fallen to the floor. One of the best preserved pictures inherited by the late Marquis was a portrait of Pope, painted from life by Richardson for the Earl of Burlington, and even that had been allowed to drop out of its oaken frame. Horace Walpole says, Jonathan Richardson was undoubtedly one of the best painters of a head that had appeared in England. He was pupil of the celebrated Riley, the master of Hudson, of whom Sir Joshua took lessons in his art, and it was Richardson's "Treatise on Painting" which inflamed the mind of young Reynolds, and stimulated his ambition to become a great painter. Pope seems to have had a real affection for Richardson, and probably sat to him for this picture some time during the year 1732. In Pope's correspondence there is a letter addressed to the painter making an engagement with him for a several days' sitting, and it is quite probable that the portrait before us was finished at that time. One can imagine the painter and the poet chatting together day after day, in presence of that canvas. During the same year Pope's mother died, at the great age of ninety-three; and on the evening of June 10th, while she lay dead in the house, Pope sent off the following heart-touching letter from Twickenham to his friend the painter:-

"As you know you and I mutually desire to see one another, I hoped that this day our wishes would have met, and brought you hither. And this for the very reason which possibly might hinder your coming, that my poor mother is dead. I thank God, her death was as easy as her life was innocent; and as it cost her not a groan, or even a sigh, there is yet upon her countenance such an expression of tranquillity, nay, almost of pleasure, that it is even amiable to behold it. It would afford the finest image of a saint expired that ever painting drew; and it would be the greatest obligation which even that obliging art could ever bestow on a friend, if you could come and sketch it for me. I am sure, if there be no very prevalent obstacle, you will leave any common business to do this; and I hope to see you this evening, as late as you will, or to-morrow morning as early, before this winter flower is faded. I will defer her interment till to-morrow night. I know you love me, or I could not have written this; I could not (at this time) have written at all. Adieu! May you die as happily!"

Several eminent artists of that day painted the likeness of Pope, and among them Sir Godfrey Kneller and Jervas, but I like the expression of this one by Richardson best of all. The mouth, it will be observed, is very sensitive and the eyes almost painfully so. It is told of the poet, that when he was a boy "there was great sweetness in his look," and that his face was plump and pretty, and that he had a very fresh complexion. Continual study ruined his constitution and changed his form, it is said. Richardson has skilfully kept out of sight the poor little decrepit figure, and gives us only the beautiful head of a man of genius. I scarcely know a face on canvas that expresses the poetical sense in a higher degree than this one. The likeness must be perfect, and I can imagine the delight of the Rev. Joseph Spence hobbling into his presence on the 4th of September, 1735, after "a ragged boy of an ostler came in with a little scrap of paper not half an inch broad, which contained the following words: 'Mr. Pope would be very glad to see Mr. Spence at the Cross Inn just now.'"

English literature is full of eulogistic mention of Pope. Thackeray is one of the last great authors who has spoken golden words about the poet. "Let us always take into account," he says, "that constant tenderness and fidelity of affection which pervaded and sanctified his life."

What pluck and dauntless courage possessed the "gallant little cripple" of Twickenham! When all the dunces of England were aiming their poisonous barbs at him, he said, "I had rather die at once, than live in fear of those rascals." A vast deal that has been written about him is untrue. No author has been more elaborately slandered on principle, or more studiously abused through envy. Smarting dullards went about for years, with an ever-ready microscope, hunting for flaws in his character that might be injuriously exposed; but to-day his defamers are in bad repute. Excellence in a fellow-mortal is to many men worse than death; and great suffering fell upon a host of mediocre writers when Pope uplifted his sceptre and sat supreme above them all.

Pope's latest champion is John Ruskin. Open his Lectures on Art, recently delivered before

the University of Oxford, and read passage number seventy. Let us read it together, as we sit here in the presence of the sensitive poet.

"I want you to think over the relation of expression to character in two great masters of the absolute art of language, Virgil and Pope. You are perhaps surprised at the last named; and indeed you have in English much higher grasp and melody of language from more passionate minds, but you have nothing else, in its range, so perfect. I name, therefore, these two men, because they are the two most accomplished artists, merely as such, whom I know, in literature; and because I think you will be afterwards interested in investigating how the infinite grace in the words of the one, the severity in those of the other, and the precision in those of both, arise wholly out of the moral elements of their minds,-out of the deep tenderness in Virgil which enabled him to write the stories of Nisus and Lausus, and the serene and just benevolence which placed Pope, in his theology, two centuries in advance of his time, and enabled him to sum the law of noble life in two lines which, so far as I know, are the most complete, the most concise, and the most lofty expression of moral temper existing in English words:-

'Never elated, while one man's oppressed;

Never dejected, while another's blessed.'

I wish you also to remember these lines of Pope, and to make yourselves entirely masters of his system of ethics; because, putting Shakespeare aside as rather the world's than ours, I hold Pope to be the most perfect representative we have, since Chaucer, of the true English mind; and I think the Dunciad is the most absolutely chiselled and monumental work 'exacted' in our country. You will find, as you study Pope, that he has expressed for you, in the strictest language and within the briefest limits, every law of art, of criticism, of economy, of policy, and, finally, of a benevolence, humble, rational, and resigned, contented with its allotted share of life, and trusting the problem of its salvation to Him in whose hands lies that of the universe."

Glance up at the tender eyes of the poet, who seems to have been eagerly listening while we have been reading Ruskin's beautiful tribute. As he is so intent upon us, let me gratify still further the honest pride of "the little nightingale," as they used to call him when he was a child, and read to you from the "Causeries du Lundi" what that wise French critic, Sainte-Beuve, has written of his favorite English poet:-

"The natural history of Pope is very simple: delicate persons, it has been said, are unhappy, and he was doubly delicate, delicate of mind, delicate and infirm of body; he was doubly irritable. But what grace, what taste, what swiftness to feel, what justness and perfection in expressing his feeling!... His first masters were insignificant; he educated himself: at twelve years old he learned Latin and Greek together, and almost without a master; at fifteen he resolved to go to London, in order to learn French and Italian there, by reading the authors. His family, retired from trade, and Catholic, lived at this time upon an estate in the forest of Windsor. This desire of his was considered as an odd caprice, for his health from that time hardly permitted him to move about. He persisted, and accomplished his project; he learned nearly everything thus by himself, making his own choice among authors, getting the grammar quite alone, and his pleasure was to translate into verse the finest passages he met with among the Latin and Greek poets. When he was about sixteen years old, he said, his taste was formed as much as it was later.... If such a thing as literary temperament exist, it never discovered itself in a manner more clearly defined and more decided than with Pope. Men ordinarily become classic by means of the fact and discipline of education; he was so by vocation, so to speak, and by a natural originality. At the same time with the poets, he read the best among the critics, and prepared himself to speak after them.

* * *

"Pope had the characteristic sign of literary natures, the faithful worship of genius.... He said one day to a friend: 'I have always been particularly struck with this passage of Homer where he represents to us Priam transported with grief for the loss of Hector, on the point of breaking out into reproaches and invectives against the servants who surrounded him and against his sons. It would be impossible for me to read this passage without weeping over the disasters of the unfortunate old king.' And then he took the book, and tried to read aloud the passage, 'Go, wretches, curse of my life,' but he was interrupted by tears.

* * *

"No example could prove to us better than his to what degree the faculty of tender, sensitive criticism is an active faculty. We neither feel nor perceive in this way when there is nothing to give in return. This taste, this sensibility, so swift and alert, justly supposes imagination behind it. It is said that Shelley, the first time he heard the poem of 'Christabel' recited, at a certain magnificent and terrible passage, took fright and suddenly fainted. The whole poem of 'Alastor' was to be foreseen in that fainting. Pope, not less sensitive in his way, could not read through that passage of the Iliad without bursting into tears. To be a critic to that degree, is to be a poet."

Thanks, eloquent and judicious scholar, so lately gone from the world of letters! A love of what is best in art was the habit of Sainte-Beuve's life, and so he too will be remembered as one who has kept the best company in literature,-a man who cheerfully did homage to genius, wherever and whenever it might be found.

I intend to leave as a legacy to a dear friend of mine an old faded book, which I hope he will always prize as it deserves. It is a well-worn, well-read volume, of no value whatever as an edition,-but it belonged to Abraham Lincoln. It is his copy of "The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope, Esq., to which is prefixed the life of the author by Dr. Johnson." It bears the imprint on the title-page of J.J. Woodward, Philadelphia, and was published in 1839. Our President wrote his own name in it, and chronicles the fact that it was presented to him "by his friend N.W. Edwards." In January, 1861, Mr. Lincoln gave the book to a very dear friend of his, who honored me with it in January, 1867, as a New-Year's present. As long as I live it will remain among my books, specially treasured as having been owned and read by one of the noblest and most sorely tried of men, a hero comparable with any of Plutarch's,-

"The kindly-earnest, brave, foreseeing man,

Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,

New birth of our new soil, the first American."

* * *

THACKERAY

What Emerson has said in his fine subtle way of Shakespeare may well be applied to the author of "Vanity Fair."

"One can discern in his ample pictures what forms and humanities pleased him; his delight in troops of friends, in large hospitality, in cheerful giving.

* * *

"He read the hearts of men and women, their probity, and their second thought, and wiles; the wiles of innocence, and the transitions by which virtues and vices slide into their contraries."

* * *

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