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In Good Company written by Coulson Kernahan who was an English novelist. This book was published in 1917. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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In Good Company
Some personal recollections of Swinburne, Lord Roberts,
Watts-Dunton, Oscar Wilde Edward Whymper, S. J. Stone,
A. C. SWINBURNE
THEODORE WATTS-DUNTON AS THE “OGRE OF THE ‘ATHENÆUM’”
WHY THEODORE WATTS-DUNTON PUBLISHED ONLY TWO BOOKS
THEODORE WATTS-DUNTON AS AN AMATEUR IN AUTHORSHIP AND AS A GOOD FELLOW TWO SIDES OF HIS MANY-SIDEDNESS
ONE ASPECT OF THE MANY-SIDEDNESS OF THEODORE WATTS-DUNTON
THE LAST DAYS OF THEODORE WATTS-DUNTON
WHEN STEPHEN PHILLIPS READ
EDWARD WHYMPER AS I KNEW HIM
S. J. STONE, THE HYMN-WRITER
My Dear Mrs. Henniker,
It is many years since we first met at the house of one whom we both loved, whose memory we both cherish. It was that friend’s hope that you and I should become, and should remain friends; and that the hope has been realised has given me many happy hours—sometimes in your company as my gracious hostess, sometimes, scarcely less closely in your company, as a reader of your delightful and beautiful stories. Were your gallant General—I remember how proud he was of those stories—alive to-day, I should have asked to be allowed to dedicate this book to the two of you. Now that—alas for the England that he so faithfully loved, so nobly served—he is with us no more, may I inscribe it to yourself and to his honoured memory?
Yours ever sincerely,Coulson Kernahan.
One of the subjects of these studies said in my hearing, that “Recollections” are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memory, or have never, themselves, done anything in life worth remembering.
To the second indictment I plead guilty, but my best excuse for the publication of this volume is that I write while the first indictment fails. My memory is still good, and the one thing which seems most worth remembering in my life is my undeservedly fortunate friendships.
In writing of my friends and of those with whom I was associated, I am, therefore, I believe, giving of my best. I ought to add that these papers were penned for inclusion in a volume of frankly personal and intimate “Recollections.” A work of that sort is the one book of his life in which an author is allowed some freedom from convention. That is why I hope to be pardoned should any passage, letter, or incident in these pages seem too intimate or too personal.
The reason why the studies are printed separately is that the ship in which I hope to carry the bulk of my threatened “Recollections” (if ever that ship come to port) will be so heavily weighted a vessel, that I am lightening it by unloading a portion of the cargo at the friendly harbour of The Bodley Head.
To drop figurative language and to speak plainly, I may add that, though there is some attempt at a more or less finished portrait in some of my pen-pictures, that of Lord Roberts is no portrait, but merely a chronicle. His personality, at least, is too well known and loved to need either analysis or description.
The paper When Stephen Phillips Read, mere snapshot as it is of one aspect of his personality, was not written for the present volume, with which, indeed, it is hardly in keeping. I include it by the wish of Mr. John Lane who, years hence, will be remembered as the faithful friend, as well as the generous and discriminating admirer, of the distinguished poet, of whose work it is his pride also to be the publisher.
Mr. Lane was anxious—knowing that my friendship with the poet was long and close—that I should write of Stephen Phillips as fully as I have here written of some others; but it is only under impulse that I seek to picture the inner self and personality of my friends, and I cannot do so while the sense of loss is comparatively new. In the case of two of whom I have thus written, many years had elapsed before I put pen to paper.
At his best—as the three friends who made such unexampled and such self-sacrificing efforts on his behalf, Sir Sidney and Lady Colvin and Mr. Stephen Gwynn, will, I think, agree—there was something approaching the godlike in Stephen Phillips. Of what was weak, and worse, in him I need not here speak, since, because he so loathed hypocrisy, he hid it from none.
One day I hope to show Stephen Phillips as he really was, and as not many knew him. I have heard him described as a man of brooding and morbid aloofness. There is truth in the description, but it is equally true to say that, at times, he could be as healthily jovial and unconstrained, as high-spirited as a happy schoolboy. His exquisite and extraordinary sense of humour was—I had almost written his “salvation,” and that not only under success which, coming early in life, might well have turned the head of a smaller man, but also in adversity which, when it came, was as crushing as his success had been complete. When this adversity, when tragic unhappiness, overtook him, he bore them with courage, and reproached no one except himself.
If as a poet he was at first overpraised, it is equally true that, towards the end, and since his death, the splendour, beauty and power of his poetry have often been underestimated. Time will set that right, and will rank him, I believe, as a true and, within his limits, a great poet.
That Stephen Phillips, the man, gave no cause for sorrow and concern to those of us who loved him, I do not maintain, nor would he wish me to do so, for no one was more ready to acknowledge his weaknesses—deeply and almost despairingly as he deplored them—and none suffered intenser agony of remorse for ill-doing than he.
Knowing him as I did, I unhesitatingly aver that his ideals and his longings were noble, and that the soul of the man was good. That all is well with him, and that he is at rest, I have no doubt. Never have I seen such fulness of peace and such beauty on the face of the newly dead, as when I knelt—to commend his passing soul to his Maker—by the bed on which lay what was mortal of Stephen Phillips. All that was weak and unworthy seemed to have fallen away as something which never was, which never could be, a part of his true self. In death, even his youth returned to him. As he lay there, white-robed, and with his hair tossed boyishly over his forehead, he looked so young that one might have thought him to be a happy and sleeping boy-chorister, dreaming of the poet-mother whom he so loved, and to join whom in Paradise may not his soul even then have been hastening?
Savage Club, London.
Had some old Pagan slept a thousand years,
To wake to-day, and stretching to the stars
Gaunt arms of longing, called on Venus, Mars,
June and Jove, Apollo and his peers;
And heard, for answer, echoing from the spheres,
“Thy gods are gone: the gods of old are dead.
It is by Christ thou shalt be comforted,
The pitying God who wipes away all tears.”
Such answer had there come, deaf ears, in scorn
Had turned the Pagan, and deaf ears turn we
To other voices, on this April morn,
Since he who sang the sunrise and the sea
Shall sing no more. Deaf are we and forlorn,
The gods are dead, and dead is Poetry.
April 10, 1909.
Swinburne was furious.
I had lunched with him and Watts-Dunton at The Pines, and after I had smoked a cigarette with the latter, the author of Atalanta in Calydon had invited me upstairs to his sanctum, that he might show me the latest acquisition to his library—a big parchment-bound book tied with ribbons—the Kelmscott reprint of one of Caxton’s books. He waxed enthusiastic, I remember, over the Rape of Danae. Then he took up the proofs of an article on John Day which he was contributing to the Nineteenth Century that he might read some passages from it. To verify a quotation, he walked to his shelves in search of a book, talking volubly meanwhile, and turning, as was his custom, to look directly at the person whom he was addressing. Unlike Watts-Dunton, whose library was a witness to the catholicity of the owner’s interests and of his tastes, Swinburne’s library was comparatively small and select, for he was as exclusive in regard to the books he admitted to his shelves as he was in regard to the men and women he admitted to his friendship. Knowing exactly, I suppose, where the required volume was to be found, his hand went as confidently towards it—even though his face was turned away from it, and towards me—as the fingers of a musician go towards the keys of a piano at which he does not look. For once Swinburne’s instincts played him false. Taking down the book without glancing at it, and still pouring out a torrent of words, he opened it, his eyes on my face, and shaking the forefinger of his right hand at me, said:
“Here it is! Listen!” and dropped his eyes upon the page.
To my astonishment his face suddenly crimsoned, the eyes that might once have been bright blue, but were now faded, and, in fading, seemed to have caught and retained something of the colour of the great seas and of the grassy fields upon which they have so often and so lovingly lingered, glowed with green fire like that we see in the eyes of an angry cat, and he flung the book away from him in a tornado of wrath. He had taken down the wrong volume, an anthology, and opened at a page on which was printed a poem by the particular writer who, like the wearer of a red coat intruding thoughtlessly upon the domain of an angry bull, happened at that particular moment to be the subject of a poet’s capricious wrath—for on occasion I have heard Swinburne speak with kindly, if contemptuous toleration, of a writer whose damnation in this world and the next he seemed at another time ardently to desire.
“Of all my imitators,” he shrilled, literally quivering with the tempestuousness of his passion, “this fellow (mentioning a poet whose name I suppress) is the most intolerable. I claim—and you, I know, will admit the justice of the claim—that perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of my work in poetry is that I have taken old and hackneyed metres, and have tried to transform them from a mere jingle, and a mere jig-jig, into music. This pestilent ape has vulgarised what I have done by servile imitations of my manner and of my methods; but, what I had transformed into music, he has transformed back into the vilest and most jigging of jingles.”
When a poet of Swinburne’s eminence thus turns the searchlight of criticism upon himself, and seeks to lay bare, in a few pregnant sentences, what he considers the secret of his art and of his success, one must necessarily be interested and even fascinated. On this occasion, however, I was more concerned about the singular state of nervous excitability into which my host had worked himself than curious to draw him out by further discussion.
Sir James Barrie says somewhere that “Temper is a weapon which we handle by the blade,” a tragic instance of the truth of which I had in mind at that moment. A certain distinguished writer, now dead, who like Swinburne was a good hater, and scarcely less excitable than he, had made, or imagined that he had made (the vagaries of the artistic temperament are many), a deadly enemy of a fellow craftsman and critic. Every adverse review of his work, or unfriendly reference to himself, which appeared in the public Press, he insisted on attributing, directly or indirectly, to the malignity of this supposed enemy. A not ungenerous man at heart, in spite of—possibly because of—his blaze of a temper and quickness to take offence, the distinguished writer in question had shown much interest in a struggling young author of his own nationality, and had not only assisted him financially, but had been at great pains to find a publisher for the lad’s first book, and had importuned his friends on the Press to review the work favourably and at length. The first notice to appear was adverse in the extreme, and the distinguished writer instantly declared that he saw in it the hand of his enemy, who had sought to stab at him by damning the work of a young fellow known to be his friend and protégé.
Flinging the paper containing the review upon the ground, he stamped upon it, and about the room, working himself up finally into so furious a passion that it brought on a seizure from which he never entirely recovered, and that practically ended his career.
“Temper is a weapon which we handle by the blade.”
This story I had only recently heard, and had good reason for believing. Seeing my host literally trembling and quivering in every limb with the intensity of the excitement, and of the anger into which he had worked himself, my one anxiety was to distract the attention of this representative of the proverbially irritable race of geniuses from the disturbing subject, and to soothe him back to his normal calm. Unfortunately for me, his deafness made my task difficult, but I chanced to hit upon a topic in which he was keenly interested, and, little by little, he quieted down, until I could see that he had talked himself out and was ready for the afternoon nap in which it was his custom to indulge.
Remembering that incident, and others like it within my knowledge, I ask myself how it is possible to judge men and women of genius—men and women to whose great brains the live blood rushes at a thought or at a word; whose passions are like a laid fuse, ready to take fire and to explode the mine at a touch—by the same standard which we apply to the cold-blooded, sluggish-brained, lethargic and perhaps more fortunate mortals to whom impulse is unknown, upon whom passion has no sway, and who rarely commit themselves to any expression or to any action, noble or mean, wise or indiscreet, without first of all carefully weighing the results and counting up the costs.
“It is apparently too often a congenial task,” says George Eliot in her Essay on Heine, “to write severe words about the transgressions of men of genius; especially when the censor has the advantage of being himself a man of no genius, so that those transgressions seem to him quite gratuitous; he, forsooth, never lacerated anyone by his wit or gave irresistible piquancy to a coarse allusion; and his indignation is not mitigated by any knowledge of the temptation that lies in transcendent power.”
Of all controversialists (and he dearly loved a verbal encounter) to whom I have ever listened, Swinburne was incomparably the most crushing. He fought with scrupulous and knightly fairness, never stooping to take a mean advantage of an adversary, and listening patiently, punctiliously even, while the other side was making its points. But, when his turn came, he carried everything before him. Vesuvius in eruption could not more effectually overwhelm or consume the rubble around its crater than Swinburne could scarify or sweep away, by a lava-torrent of burning words, the most weighty arguments of his opponents.
So, too, with his conversation. When he was moved by his subject, when he talked in dead earnest, he did nothing else. He forgot everything. In the middle, or even at the beginning of a meal, he would lay down knife and fork, and turn to face his listener, quite oblivious of, or indifferent to the fact that his dinner or lunch was spoiling.
On one occasion I happened, half-way through lunch, to mention that I had in my pocket a copy of Christina Rossetti’s latest poem, written in memory of the Duke of Clarence, and entitled The Death of a First-born.
Down went knife and fork as he half rose from his chair to stretch a hand across the table for the manuscript.
“She is as a god to mortals when compared to most other living women poets,” he exclaimed in a burst of Swinburnian hyperbole.
Then in his thin, high-pitched but exquisitely modulated and musical voice he half read, half chanted two verses of the poem in question:
One young life lost, two happy young lives blighted
With earthward eyes we see:
With eyes uplifted, keener, farther-sighted
We look, O Lord, to Thee.
Grief hears a funeral knell: Hope hears the ringing
Of birthday bells on high.
Faith, Hope and Love make answer with soft singing,
Half carol and half cry.
Then he stopped abruptly.
“I won’t read the third and last verse,” he said. “One glance at it is sufficient to show that it is unequal, and that the poem would be stronger and finer by its omission. But for the happy folk who are able to think as she thinks, who believe as she believes on religious matters, the poem is of its kind perfect. Let me read that second verse again,” and with glowing eyes, with hand marking time to the music, he read once more:
Grief hears a funeral knell: Hope hears the ringing
Of birthday bells on high.
Faith, Hope and Love make answer with soft singing,
Half carol and half cry.
The last line, “Half carol and half cry,” he repeated three times, lowering his voice with each repetition, until at last it was little more than a whisper, and so died away, like the undistinguishable ceasing of far-off music.
Laying the manuscript reverently beside him, he sat perfectly still for a space and with brooding beautiful eyes. Then rising without a word he stole silently, softly, almost ghost-like, but with short, swift steps out of the room.
Though it was my privilege to count among my friends several personal friends of Swinburne—notably the late Theodore Watts-Dunton, Philip Bourke Marston, and the dearest and closest of all my friends, Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton—it was not until the first weeks of 1892 that I met him personally.
I was invited to lunch at The Pines, and the first thing that struck me as I entered the dining-room and took the extended hand, which was soft and limp, and had no sturdiness in the grasp, was the singular charm and even courtliness of his bearing. Unmistakably an aristocrat, and with all the ease and polish which one associates with high breeding, there was, even in the cordiality with which he rose and came forward to welcome me, a suspicion of the shy nervousness of the introspective man and of the recluse on first facing a stranger. It had passed in a few minutes, and I saw no trace of it at any of our subsequent meetings, but to the last his courtliness remained. I have seen him angry, I have heard him furiously dissent from and even denounce the views put forward by others, but never once was what, for want of a better word, I must call his personal deference to those others relaxed. With him the proverbial familiarity which is said to breed contempt, bred only more consistent and insistent courtesy. To no one would he defer quite so graciously and readily, to no one was he so scrupulously courtly in his bearing, as to those who constituted the household in which he lived. On the occasion of this first meeting with him he talked with extraordinary animation, sitting up erectly in his chair and moving his body or limbs stiffly and jerkily. He had not long returned from his forenoon walk, and, if I may be pardoned so far-fetched a comparison, he was like a newly-opened bottle of champagne, bubbling and brimming over with the buoyant, beady, joyous and joy-giving wine of morning. Watts-Dunton, always generously ready to interest himself, and to endeavour to interest others, in the work of a young writer of ability, was anxious to talk about my friend, Richard Le Gallienne. He might as well, by making a stopper of his open hand, have tried permanently to prevent the overflow of the champagne bottle which I have used for the purpose of a fanciful comparison. The moment he withdrew his hand, the instant he ceased to speak of Le Gallienne, Swinburne, as represented by the newly-opened bottle, was bubbling over again about his walk. The wine of it was in his veins and seemed to have intoxicated him.
“There is no time like the morning for a walk!” he declared, turning to me with enthusiasm. “The sparkle, the exhilaration of it! I walk every morning of my life, no matter what the weather, pelting along all the time as fast as I can go; and it is entirely to my daily walk that I attribute my perfect health.”
On hearing that I, too, was a great, as well as a fast walker, Swinburne looked me up and down challengingly, and said with a smile that was almost like a merry boy’s:
“Yes! But I think I could outwalk you, and get there first, for all your six feet!” Then, turning to Watts-Dunton, he apologised playfully for having monopolised the talk, and said, “Now tell me about your young poet. His is certainly the most beautiful poet-face since Shelley’s.”
Watts-Dunton replied by reading some extracts from a “Note on Swinburne” which Le Gallienne had contributed to Literary Opinion, Swinburne listening with downbent head meanwhile. When Watts-Dunton had made an end of it, and Swinburne had expressed his appreciation, the latter inquired how I first came to know Le Gallienne, and learning that when I was acting as the Editor of the English edition of Lippincott’s Magazine I had, in that capacity or incapacity, accepted one of Le Gallienne’s first published articles, The Nature Poems of George Meredith, he asked if I knew Sir J. M. Barrie, who he considered had been much influenced by the author of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.
“Only slightly,” I answered. “I suggested, in fact organised a dinner to dear old F. W. Robinson, in whose magazine Home Chimes much of the early work of Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome, Zangwill, Eden Phillpotts, G. B. Burgin, and many others, who have since come into their own, appeared. Jerome took the chair and Barrie the vice-chair, and the dinner was something of a record in the list of distinguished men present, and was, I believe, one of the few functions of the sort of which an account appeared in the Athenæum. It was there I first met Barrie.”
“Robinson of Grandmother’s Money,” cried Swinburne in an ecstasy of enthusiasm. “You have mentioned the name of one of the very salt of the earth, and one of the dearest friends of both of us here. We contributed to the first number of Home Chimes. Watts-Dunton wrote a noble Sonnet of Greeting, and I printed my Sonnet Near Cromer there. His novels, I grant, though eminently readable, as the reviewers say, are not great. Unlike Dr. Gilbert’s, they do not dovetail. Finishing one chapter, you are not restless and uneasy till you have read the next, and that is a fatal defect in a novelist.”
Speaking of Robinson and Home Chimes reminded Swinburne of the fact that it was in that unfortunately named and defunct magazine that he had seen some of the best work of Philip Bourke Marston, the blind poet, concerning whom I had contributed an article to the current number of the Fortnightly Review. This article Swinburne had read and wished to discuss, for, whereas my friendship with Philip Marston was not of long standing, he had known the blind poet since the latter was a lad of fourteen, and on the day after Philip’s death had written a memorial sonnet which was subsequently printed in the Athenæum.
Swinburne’s remarks upon the subject of my article—though I need hardly say I have forgotten no word of what he said—I pass over, but what I must not pass over is the witness these remarks bore to his extraordinary memory and to his equally extraordinary method of reading. Reading, in fact, is not the word. Had he parsed the article, schoolboy wise, sentence by sentence, he could not more effectually have mastered it; had he dissected it, part by part, surgeon-like, he could not more completely have torn the heart out of the matter.
Obviously Swinburne could only have read the thing once, yet had I, the writer, been called upon, even while it was fresh in my memory, to pass an examination on this very article, I doubt whether I should have known half as much of it as he. Hearing him thus deliver himself upon a casual contribution to a periodical, which, by reason of his love and friendship for the blind poet with whom the article dealt, had chanced to interest him, I could understand how his single brain had been able to deal illuminatingly with so vast a volume of literature as he had from time to time passed under review. His power of concentration, and of pouncing, hawk-like, upon what seemed to him to be memorable or salient, as well as his ability to recollect all he had read, must have been extraordinary.
A more exhaustive summing up—not, I admit, of the evidence on both sides, but of the evidence which appealed to his individual judgment, his individual imagination, and his individual taste—I have never heard. Prejudiced as he was, however, in favour of Marston, he would not go so far as Rossetti, for his last word on the subject was:
“When Gabriel spoke of Philip’s poem, The Rose and the Wind, as ‘worthy of Shakespeare in his subtlest lyrical mood,’ he let his personal affection run away with his critical judgment, and his verdict must always be discounted by the fact that Philip was the aptest pupil in the School of Poetry in which Rossetti was the acknowledged master. Watts-Dunton is a much surer guide, and when he said that ‘So perfect a lyric as The Rose and the Wind should entitle Marston to a place of his own, and that no inconsiderable one,’ he said the true word, the deserved word, and the word which I do not think anyone will have the hardihood to dispute.”
When next I met Swinburne, nearly twelve months had gone by, and, in spite of the eager way in which at our first meeting he had talked of the men and women and things within his own mental horizon, I should not have been in the least surprised to find that he had practically forgotten me. I do not say this in any spirit of mock modesty, but because I remembered that, at that first meeting, I had mentioned, in the course of conversation, a book by a certain author who to my knowledge had been a visitor to The Pines on several occasions, and so must personally have been well known to Swinburne.
“Oh, really!” he said. “Yes, now that you mention it, I believe that someone of that name has been so good as to come and see us. I seem to recall him. And I seem to remember hearing someone say that he had written something, though I don’t remember exactly what. So he has published a book upon the subject of which we are talking. Really? I did not know.”
This was said with perfect courtesy, and without the remotest intention of administering a snub either to me or to the literary reputation of the writer in question. It meant no more than that Swinburne lived so apart from the rest of the world, had such power of detachment, and kept so habitually the company only of his books and of his peers, that the personality of the rest of us left no impression on him.
On this occasion, only Watts-Dunton, Miss Teresa Watts, his sister, Swinburne, and myself were present, and the talk turned at first upon William Rossetti, with whom, in his home at St. Edmund’s Terrace, Regent’s Park, I had spent an hour or two on the previous afternoon. Both Swinburne and Watts-Dunton were interested to hear news of their old friend whom both regretted seeing so seldom. They plied me with innumerable questions in regard to his health, his plans, even in regard to trivial details about his home life, not omitting mention of his sister Christina’s beloved cat “Muff,” and the red plush sofa on which Shelley was supposed to have slept, the night before his death, and that now stands in the library. Both my hearers were touched when I spoke of Rossetti’s affectionate words about William Morris, for whom, though “Topsy” (as he called Morris) and he had not met five times in twenty years, Rossetti to the last entertained the old affection. Rossetti’s vivid recollection of the day of the funeral of Watts-Dunton’s mother, some fifteen years before, when there was so terrible a blizzard that he could get no conveyance to Endsleigh Gardens—where he was then living—and had to fight his way home on foot in a blinding snowstorm, was naturally of special interest to Watts-Dunton. Much more was said, and many other questions were asked, upon which I do not propose here to linger, passing on, instead, to speak of the sudden flaming up of Swinburne at the mention by Rossetti of William Bell Scott as having once been a drawing master.
“Perfectly true! Perfectly true!” interpolated Swinburne angrily, “and a drawing master he remained to his life’s end.”
For the remainder of my stay he talked vivaciously, and here I should like to say that in all that has been written about his personality—his eccentricities, excitability and exclusiveness; his passionate love of the sea and of little children; the changes that his political views underwent; his chivalrous championship of his friends against all comers, and the savage onslaught upon Robert Buchanan; his sturdy patriotism, and his historic friendships—very little has been said of the lighter side of his nature. That he could wield in controversy the lash of satire and irony, and wield it mercilessly, more than one combatant has had cause to know, and there are alive to-day ancient enemies of his whose backs must still tingle at memory of some of his onslaughts. But of his wit and humour in daily life and the sunny playfulness of his banter in conversation with his friends, one seldom hears. I have known him keep the table alive for an hour at a time by whimsical and deliciously humorous and caustic comments on the topics—political, literary, or artistic—of the day.
On this particular morning he was anxious to show me a review of Kriegspiel, that most remarkable novel by the late Francis Hinde Groome, son of the famous archdeacon, the intimate of Edward FitzGerald, with whom Frank Groome had himself been well acquainted as a boy.
With Groome—who, as my readers know, was, like Watts-Dunton and the late Charles Godfrey Leland, an accomplished student of Gipsy Life, Gipsy Language, and Gipsy Lore—I was myself on terms of friendship, and indeed had been of some small service to him in regard to the publication of Kriegspiel, knowing which, Swinburne was anxious to hear whether I thought the review could be used to assist the sale of the book, and so elected to go upstairs to his room to get it.
He returned with a face like that of a schoolboy intent upon mischief, and with a rolled up journal in his hand. After I had read the review of Kriegspiel, and proposed sending it on to the publisher, Watts-Dunton inquired, pointing to the roll which Swinburne was still holding:
“What have you got there?”
“To-day’s Graphic,” was the reply. “I noticed it sticking out of the pocket of your greatcoat, hanging in the hall, and peeping inside saw that there was an illustrated supplement, Poets of the Day, so I wouldn’t even look to see whether you and I are included, but brought it here that we might all go through it together. What heart-burning and hair-tearing there will be in the poetical dovecotes, in regard to who is in, and who is out! Why didn’t you tell me of it before?”
“Because I didn’t know anything about it,” was the reply. “It was from Kernahan’s coat, not mine, that you took it. We all pick each other’s brains in Grub Street, but picking pockets is quite another matter.”
Swinburne apologised, but held on to the Graphic tenaciously. Then he opened it, smoothed out the page, and ran through the pictured poets, cataloguing them, complimenting them or chaffing them upon their appearance or their poetry, even improvising suitable epitaphs for their obsequies in Westminster Abbey, or composing, on the spur of the moment, Nonsense Verses and Limericks that hit off with delicious humour or mordant irony the personal or poetical peculiarities of the different “bards,” as he called them.
Now that he, and so many of these “bards” are, alas, gone, I hesitate to repeat in cold blood, and so long after, what was said on the spur of the moment, and among friends. But, tantalising as it may be to the reader, especially if that reader be a poet, and so possibly an interested party, to be told merely of witty sayings of which no specimen is forthcoming, I must hold my hand, as I have been compelled to hold it in other pages of theseRecollections. We have it on the authority of Mr. Clement Shorter that one must be indiscreet to be entertaining, and I agree with him so far as to admit that, in Recollections, the best must always be that which remains unwritten.
After Swinburne had exhausted the Graphic, I produced, from the pocket of the pirated greatcoat, yet another journal, to which a certain critic had contributed a somewhat feeble article upon the work and poetry of Swinburne himself. I read it aloud, to the accompaniment of ironic laughter on the part of Watts-Dunton, Miss Watts and myself, but Swinburne, though he had hugely enjoyed it, and had interpolated sly comments of exaggerated gratitude, said, when I had made an end and with a wave of dismissal:
“It is meant kindly, and when the intention is so obviously kind one must not be too ungenerously critical.”
Thereafter we talked of Ireland, Swinburne having only recently learned or recently realised that I hailed from that land of poets turned politicians. I suspect that the fact of my nationality was responsible for much of his kindness to me, for, laugh at us as many Englishmen may and do, in their hearts they have a sneaking liking for men and women of Irish birth. I had said that I should be leaving soon after lunch, and after he had bidden me good-bye, and had retired for his afternoon sleep, he returned, not once, but two or three times, and with an impulsiveness which was almost Irish, to speak again and yet again of Ireland and especially of Irish poetry.
It had been my good fortune the night before to take in Mrs. Lynn Linton to dinner at the beautiful and hospitable home of Sir Bruce and Lady Seton at Chelsea, and Mrs. Lynn Linton and I had talked much of Ireland. Mentioning this to Swinburne, he said that he had once written to Mrs. Lynn Linton remonstrating violently with her about an article of hers on Ireland, and he had reason to believe that his words had not been without effect, as, since then, Mrs. Lynn Linton had come to think as he had on that question, and was of opinion that Gladstone, Morley and Harcourt ought to have been impeached for high treason. Reverting to books, he said that nothing so beautiful about Ireland had been written as the Hon. Emily Lawless’s novel Grania, then fresh from the press. He had bought a number of copies to send to his own friends, as well as some to send to his aunt, Lady Mary Gordon, for distribution in her circle. He went on to say that his old friend, Dr. Whitley Stokes, had shown him some of the Irish songs which were sung to the tunes to which Tom Moore afterwards wrote his “mawkish and sentimental songs.” One of these, Swinburne said, had since been reprinted in the Academy.
“And as poetry I can only compare it to the Book of Job—and what more superlatively splendid praise can I offer than that?”
Here Watts-Dunton put in a word for Wales and incidentally for Scotland, which reminds me that I ought to say that Watts-Dunton’s share in this, and in other conversations, was no less interesting, though less erratic and more considered than Swinburne’s.
Switched off thus from Ireland to Scotland, Swinburne launched out into enthusiastic praise of the islands of Rum and Eig, the nomenclature of which, he said, was phonetically and fatally suggestive of a nourishing, if nauseous drink, not to be despised, he understood, after an early morning swim, and declared that the one thing which made him regret he was not a man of wealth was that he could not afford to yield to the desire of his heart, and spend half his time cruising in a yacht around the western islands of Scotland.
Perhaps the most treasured possession on my bookshelves is a volume in which Swinburne has inscribed my name and his own. The volume in question is his Studies in Prose and Poetry, and as, among the contents, there is an article devoted entirely to a consideration of the merits and defects of Lyra Elegantiarum, in the editorial work of the last edition of which it was my honour and privilege to collaborate with the original compiler, the late Mr. Frederick Locker-Lampson, I may perhaps be pardoned for referring to it here.
The fact that Swinburne was making Lyra Elegantiarum the subject of an important article (it appeared first in the Forum) was told to me when I was lunching one day at The Pines, and naturally I carried the news of the compliment which his book was to receive to Mr. Locker-Lampson.
“Compliment!” he exclaimed. “Yes, it will be a compliment. Any editors might well be proud that the result of their labours should be the subject of an article by Swinburne. But pray heaven he be merciful, for I fear our expected compliment is like to turn out to be something of a castigation.”
Mr. Locker-Lampson was not far wrong, for, when the article appeared, we found that Swinburne had as roundly rated the editors as he had generously praised.
I sent Swinburne a copy of the édition de luxe, a gift with which he was delighted, and indeed procured other copies to give to friends and relations, one in a binding of his own designing being, I think, for his mother. When next I was at The Pines, he inquired whether Mr. Locker-Lampson and I were pleased with his review.
“How could we be otherwise than pleased by any article upon the book by the author of Atalanta in Calydon?” I replied.
“But you were pleased with what I said?”
“Of course, but you must forgive me if I say that it was very much as if a schoolmaster had called up a boy out of the class, and, after lavishing undeserved praise upon him for good behaviour, had then taken him across his knee and thrashed him soundly for abominably bad conduct.”
He dived among the litter of papers, reviews, letters and manuscripts upon the floor, for a copy of his article, and then read aloud:
“‘There is no better or completer anthology in the language. I doubt indeed if there be any so good or so complete. No objection or suggestion that can reasonably be offered, can in any way diminish our obligation, either to the original editor, or to his evidently able assistant Mr. Kernahan.’
“Doesn’t that please you?” he enquired.
“Immeasurably,” I said.
“And there is more of it,” he went on, reading detached passages aloud. “‘The editors to their lasting honour ... the instinctive good sense, the manly and natural delicacy of the present editors ... this radiant and harmonious gallery of song.’ And so on and so on.”
“Yes,” I said, “it is the so ons that I’m thinking of. Suppose we dip into them.” Then I took the article from his hand and read as follows: “‘If elegance is the aim or the condition of this anthology, how comes it to admit such an unsurpassably horrible example as the line—I refrain from quoting it—which refers to the “settling” of “Gibson’s hash”?... The worst positive blemish—and a most fearful blemish it is ... will unluckily be found, and cannot be overlooked, on the fourth page. Sixth on the list of selected poems, is a copy of verses attributed to Shakespeare—of all men on earth!—by the infamous pirate, liar, and thief, who published a worthless little volume of stolen and mutilated poetry, patched up and padded out with dreary and dirty doggrel, under the preposterous title of The Passionate Pilgrim.... Happily there is here no second instance—but naturally there could not have been a second—of such amazing depravity of taste.’
“In fact,” I said, “your review of the book recalls to my mind the familiar lines by Bickerstaff, which are to be found in this very volume:
When late I attempted your pity to move
What made you so deaf to my prayers?
Perhaps it was right to dissemble your love,
But why did you kick me downstairs?
You remember Jeffery Prowse’s lines about someone being ‘problematically sober, but indubitably drunk’?” I went on. “The ‘dissembling’ of ‘your love’ in the opening sentences of your article may be ‘problematical,’ but the ‘kicking’ of us ‘downstairs,’ and out of the door later on, is as ‘indubitable’ as is the fact that the book is profoundly honoured by being reviewed by Algernon Charles Swinburne at all.”
With that parting shot, at which he laughed heartily, I bade him good-bye and came away, to find on returning to my home, a letter from Mr. Locker-Lampson which, as it has no word that can be considered private, and deals with matters of general literary interest, as well as with some of the strictures by Swinburne that have been quoted above, I venture to append:
Newhaven Court, Cromer,17th Oct.
I have just been reading the Forum for October, and I think that altogether we may be satisfied with A. C. S.’s article.
I venture to think that he rather overrates Landor and underrates Calverley.
We should not have inserted ‘Youth and Art’ [the lines by Browning referring to ‘Gibson’s hash’ to which Mr. Swinburne took such objection] or ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’ or Croker’s ‘Miss Peel.’We ought to have put in Pope’s ‘I know a thing.’
I remember talking to Tennyson about Dirce, and he said it was too classical for English taste. I do not think many people would care for it, but perhaps it might be added. Stygean Set is not a cultivated expression, not better than lot, and if Dirce was a shade it did not matter whether Charon forgot himself or not.
I really feel much obliged to Mr. Swinburne for whom I have sincere regard. Perhaps if you see him you will tell him of my obligation.
His article strengthens my decided opinion that the book is a verydifficult one to edit. All the experts have different ideas about it. Lang, Swinburne, Gosse, Dobson, and Palgrave are all opposed.
I hope you are quite well.
Always truly,F. L. L.
In all my conversations with Swinburne, I cannot recall one instance of his interrupting a speaker. He would, it is true, go off at a conversational tangent, as when, talking of Francis Hinde Groome and Suffolk, he interpolated apparently irrelevant remarks upon the curious names of some Yorkshire villages, having presumably only discovered that morning that one of these villages bore the delightful name of “Beggar my Neighbour.” But, though one could see by his flashing eye that the hounds of utterance were chafing and fretting to fling themselves upon the quarry, he invariably waited till the other speaker had made an end of it before lettinggo the leash. To everything that Watts-Dunton said, then or at any time, he listened almost as a disciple might listen to a master, and again and again he urged me to use any influence I had with the author of Aylwin to induce him to give that then unpublished work to the world, and to allow hisAthenæum essays to be collected and issued in book form.
“Only,” said Swinburne at a white heat of enthusiastic admiration, “if every page, on which they were printed, represented a hundred pound bank-note; if the back and the sides of the cover were of the finest beaten gold—that would not be too costly a raiment for the noblest critical work, dealing with first principles, that has ever been given to the world.”
That this was Swinburne’s deliberate opinion of the value of his brother poet’s and brother friend’s work, and was not the expression of a moment’s enthusiasm, I have reason to know, for he used similar expressions in my presence on many occasions. I observe, too, that Mr. James Douglas, in his book Theodore Watts-Dunton, Poet, Novelist, and Critic, quotes Swinburne as describing Watts-Dunton as “the first critic of his time, perhaps the largest minded and surest sighted of any age”—a judgment which, as Mr. Douglas reminds us, Rossetti endorsed.
Watts-Dunton, rumpling up his hair with one hand, tried to turn the conversation into other channels, but Swinburne was obdurate.
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