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has spoken better than it thought. For to Wordsworth (or to Blake, for that matter) each poem was indeed of the same solemn value; because each poem was regarded as a separate contribution to that more important synthesis that he struggled to fill-in and complete. He was not, like Herrick, so much concerned with the making of separate poems as with the delivery of a vision; and in the utterance of that vision each poem was important. This Wordsworth felt; and, did we truly examine ourselves, we would find that we do so also. The Wordsworth of the Complete Works takes his place in the front rank of English poets, with Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley for companions. The Wordsworth of Matthew Arnold's selection falls back behind Keats and even Byron.
Thus it is always necessary to be assured that one has seen a man's vision, or that one has perceived the particular quality of his artistic attempt, before it is even possible to speak of the faults of his workmanship; for it may so happen that what may, on its own merits, appear to be a grave fault may be a necessary adjunct to the attainment of that vision or that artistic attempt. It is this that the mind perceives in the case of Dickens, even as it is this that enables us to discover the true praise of him. It has, for example, been laid to his charge that his characters, in the main, have no semblance to reality; that they are grotesque and exaggerated. It would be interesting to contrast this assertion with the constant exclamation that one meets in daily life that certain people and certain actions are typically Dickensian'; as though he were the court of appeal for life, instead of life being the court of appeal for him. Yet on its own merits the criticism is found to be illuminating. It is meant to be destructive; but one suddenly recalls that all the great characters of the world's literature are either grotesque or exaggerated. If Bumble be overdrawn as a workhouse official, he is not more overdrawn than the immortal Shallow as a Justice of the Peace. If Samuel Pickwick, Esq., be grotesque as a wandering merchant, he is at least not so grotesque as the inimitable Don Quixote as a wandering knight. We do not remember Sancho Panza or Panurge or the Antient Pistol because they are imitations of Life, but because they are grotesque examples of what Life can give us out of its exceeding riches. We do not admire Achilles or Hamlet or Falstaff, each in his own way, because he is like the thin thing all round us that we are pleased to call Life, but because he is a splendid, or, if we will, exaggerated, example of what Life could be if we were content to trust it. They are, strictly, creations; and we hold them in memory not because they are a mere mimicry of the smaller side of us, but because they remind us of all the splendour and wonder and laughter
that resides behind the small show that we present to the outer world. They do not portray us to ourselves: they reveal us to ourselves. For Art is the Great Revelation.
When Dickens, therefore, created Bumble, he did more than merely ridicule or shatter a system. To ridicule or to shatter a system is, relatively, a small achievement. It truly is a remarkable fact about Dickens that he did succeed in bringing about reform in several matters that urgently needed reform. That is to say, he succeeded in having a system that had worn itself into decay supplanted by another system that was as yet new. But reform, like most matters political, is in itself worth no more than the paper its enactment is printed upon. Dickens may have succeeded in dismissing the Circumlocution Office by the power of his laughter; but the new office that took its place would soon become another Circumlocution Office. He may have succeeded in abolishing the coarse brutality of Mr. Squeers; but there is many a schoolboy to-day who, were the choice given him, would considerably prefer the coarse brutality of Squeers to the refined and solicitous cruelty under which it is his lot to suffer. While Man remains the same, one system, however word-perfect, is as valueless as another, however word-imperfect. And the fact that Dickens succeeded in effecting certain substitutions of systems is no tribute to his Art, but rather only a testimony to his amazing and almost unexampled popularity. But when he created Bumble he did more than shatter a system. He illustrated what is the essential weakness of all systems. Bumble stands up as the eternal type of what it is in human nature to become under the joint influence of power and importance: a fact that we admit in the daily habit of our speech; for the word 'Bumbledom' is our continual attestation of the truth of the vision of Dickens. On him depends, not alone the execution of the system that Dickens scourged with his bitter laughter, but the execution of all other systems whatsoever. Bumble is at one time a Creation and a Revelation.
In this way Bumble may stand as a sign and ensample to us of his creator's work. He, and a score of others even truer to the heart of life than he, are almost nearer to us, and therefore more real to us, than we are to ourselves. It is because they are so near to us that we are apt to lose a distinct sense of their outline and proportion. And we are won by them accordingly. It is for this reason that so many have stumbled at the works of Dickens. They have regarded them as Novels; and in the Novel they have grown accustomed to compilation rather than to creation, to portraiture and depicture rather than to revelation and illumination. The Novel, as an Art-form, has been notably complaisant; and it is for this very reason that it is a perplexed
question as to how truly the Novel is a durable Art-form. Matter that, in the severe and searching discipline of Poetry, would not for a moment be suffered an entrance, passes without let or hindrance into the Novel, and is even accounted an adornment to it. But the adornment is the chief weakness that attends the Novel in its attempt to pass muster in the austere ranks of Art; what was thought to be a gain is found to be a loss; that which we have called, in a phrase that we have been careful not to expound, 'fidelity to life,' has been the very thing that has obviated the necessity for that creation on which all Art depends; and the result is that the Novel has always been the thing of an age, and not the thing of all time. The Iliad, the Divina Commedia, Shakespeare's Tragedies, Paradise Lost, Prometheus Unbound-all these are as young as the day on which they were written. But Fielding and Smollett, even Thackeray and George Eliot, belong to their own time, and can only be approached through the age in which they were written. One is, in the true significance of the word, creation; and the other is that compilation that is often miscalled creation: and therefore one wears divine youth on its brow; whereas the other is like a stage-piece in a foreign tongue, that cannot truly be known till the foreign tongue be mastered.
Now this is the peculiar praise of Dickens: that, with all his shortcomings (of which he had not a few), he, with Cervantes, Rabelais, and Bunyan, has lifted prose into this divine youth, this eternal significance, that has been thought the special prerogative of Poetry. Even in the face of their achievement it is hard to conceive of prose as other than journeyman toil, a perishable medium without that achievement it would be in a poor way indeed. So much is this the case that it is no strange thing to hear such a character as Sam Weller being spoken of as 'a poetic creation.' And so, in a manner of speaking, he is. It matters little that he rose out of a Victorian hostelry, as Pantagruel out of sixteenth-century France, Sancho Panza out of post-Romantic Spain, and Christian out of Puritan England. It is not what they rose out of, but what they rose into. They rose, each of them, out of a particular age, even bearing its particular brand and currency; but they rose into a perpetual significance that we call Poetry.
So we arrive at another of the faults that Criticism has dis covered in Dickens' work. It is complained of him that he lacks skill of craftsmanship, and that his books are structureless; that, having begun, as begin they must, they continue without order and conclude without reason: so that even those who have undertaken his defence have been compelled to concede the criticism, and to ask in return why they should ever end.
The criticism, as criticism, is well placed; but, in the manner of criticism, it has endeavoured to judge the works of Dickens by laws other than the laws of their own being. Those who have advanced it have considered his books as Novels. That is to say, since the Novel is as yet without adequate definition, certain standards have been raised, that prevail in their utmost rigour only with a small portion of the whole field of prose literature, and an attempt has been made to make them the rallying centre of a vast division of it. Thomas Hardy is the supreme example of the craftsman who has introduced into prose literature somewhat of the technique, in a necessarily loosened form, of the Drama (or, in Architecture, since he was once an architect, of the classic arch, which is much the same thing); and the result has been truly astonishing. Yet who would think of judging Rabelais, or Cervantes, or Bunyan for that matter, by a law so alien?
Thus it was no mere chance, but something of a divine instinct, that led Dickens to write his first book in the form of Pickwick Papers. It is unnecessary to go into a discussion of all that preceded the writing of the book. It is enough to say that Dickens would have satisfied the demands of his publishers equally well had the 'Papers' been shaped and disciplined into an outline as orderly and as shapely as the best. But his instinct impelled him otherwise; and the result is that we do not think of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club as we think of The Return of the Native, but rather as we think of The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha, or The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua. Nor does it avail to throw up the word Novel in defence or in attack. There are those who say that Cervantes is the father of the modern Novel, even as there are those who say that Pickwick Papers is no Novel. The truth is that the Novel, according to the protestations of some of its own exponents, is not so much a definite Art-form as a hotch-pot. It would be fair to say that the Novel is always novel.
Pickwick Papers is therefore almost something of a talisman in Dickens' work. Where he becomes most' Pickwickian' there he becomes most himself, and his inspiration is most sure; and when he has least of the peculiar quality that marks those Papers, even though it lead to a result so fine as Great Expectations, one feels that, with all its strength, it lacks the peculiar and perpetual significance that gave eternal youth to Pickwick. There may be more strength in the latter half of his work: there may be less of bathos in it and more of maturity and circumspection but the truth remains that the full magic of the first has become dimmed in the second. This may best be seen when some similar quality marks both an early and a later work.
For instance, both Nicholas Nickleby and A Tale of Two Cities are melodramatic; but the glitter of the first is a magical glitter, whereas the glitter of the second is sometimes perilously near like tinsel. And this, despite the fact that A Tale of Two Cities is more reserved in strength, and therefore more instant in its appeal, than anything Dickens ever did.
In all the earlier portion of his work this strange quality, this quality of perpetuity, of poetic achievement, prevails in its fullest power. We do not remember Barnaby Rudge because of its historical, or unhistorical, attempt to recount the matter of the Gordon Riots, or Oliver Twist because of its attempt to shatter a Poor-Law system, any more than we remember Gargantua or Pantagruel because of their endeavour to burlesque certain forgotten ecclesiastical abuses, or Don Quixote because its author (who of all men most lived a life of romantic adventure) sought to make romantic adventure perish for ever in the soft fire of his laughter. None of these stand with their feet planted on the revolutions of Time, for Time to bear past us and away. They are all, by a subtly transmuting touch, lifted into the air, to float there eternally while Time hastes steadily on beneath them.
Yet, although, as book succeeds book, the breath of change is seen passing over the first inspiration, although what one may call the poetic quality of Pickwick is seen to be becoming more and more spent until in Dombey and Son its colours are false and its ring is unreal, yet it is not till one comes to David Copperfield that one finds a change in full operation. There it is actively at work; and for an obvious reason. For in David Copperfield Dickens had made up his mind fully to unloose the autobiographic instinct that resides in every man. He had, in fact, determined to make the story of David Copperfield the tale of himself; so much so that he was pleased beyond measure when it was pointed out to him that the initials of David Copperfield's name were the inverted initials of his own. And consequently his creative faculty had to move within a limited scope. He was harnessed circumstances; with all the restrictions that that meant. Either inadvertently, not knowing that it meant a cleavage from his past way of work, or deliberately, as the result of Criticism, with its cry of impossible characters, he set himself the task of compilation instead of creation; and having once put his hand to the work the habit grew on him, till, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the book he died at work on, he came to lean wholly on skill and secrecy of plot, so removing himself to the utmost extreme from Pickwick Papers.
In this very book David Copperfield, however, his instinct may be seen in revolt from the work of compilation he set