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perhaps, is less spoken about, and yet has more attraction for students, than Petronius Arbiter. What is the effect of Petronius on the moral mind ? Not, I fervently believe, an immoral effect,-if we set aside certain passages which a reader “scunners at, passes over, and obliterates from his memory. Yet the subject is impure in the highest degree; from Gito to Trimalchio every character in the satire is wicked The satire is saved from worthlessness by the sincerity of its object. It does not carry us away, as Juvenal does; but it impresses us with a picture of the times, painful, no doubt, but no more likely to shock us than the history of the reign of Charles II. ; then come the purer passages, irradiating and cheering us; and under all flows the deep delicious stream of the Latinity. Were the book not a satire, but a purposeless work of imagination, it would influence us otherwise, if we studied it at all. As it is, history steps up and makes Petronius moral. We end it with a strange image of the times when it was written ; but the passages which we do not forget, or try to forget, are the pure ones, such as the delicious introductory speech on eloquence, and the description of the wonderful feast of Trimalchio. Juvenal is as gross, but he influences us far more splendidly. He carries us away, as I said above. When, as in the second satire, he launches his fierce blows at the Roman philosophers, who thinks of the coarser details ? who is not full of the fiery energy which calls Vice by her name, and drags her naked through the Roman mire ? When, in the sixth satire," he vents his thunderous spleen on women, who is not hurried along to the end ? and who does not feel that the cry, coming when it did, was a sincere and salutary one ?
When I pass from the region of satire and come to Catullus, my feeling changes. It may sound very shocking to some of the heroworshippers, but the “lepidum novum libellum ” seems to me really an immoral work, and I wish that the dry pumice-stone had rubbed out at least half of the poems. For there is sufficient evidence in the purer portions to show that Catullus was wholly insincere when he wrote the fouler portions; that he was a man with splendid instincts, and a moral sense which even repeated indulgence in base things failed to obliterate. Read the poems to Lesbia,
Lesbia whom Cicero himself called “quadrantaria,” and who is yet immortal as Laura and Beatrice. This one passion, expressed in marvellous numbers, is enough to show what a heart was beating in the poet's bosom. He who could make infamy look so beautiful
(1) Which Dryden, a grand specimen of literary immorality, only translated under protest.
in the bright intensity of his love, was false and unreal when he stooped to hurl filth at his contemporaries, from Cæsar down to the Vibenii. His grossness is all purposeless, insincere, adopted in imitation of a society to which he was made immeasurably superior by the strength of that one passion. His love poems to Lesbia, coarse as they are in parts, leave on the reader an impression too pathetic, too beautiful, to be impure. Whether he bewails in half-plaintive irony the death of the sparrow, or sings in rapturous ecstasy, as in the fifth poem, or cries with agony to the gods, as in the lines beginning,
Si qua recordanti benefacta priora voluptas,
Est homini, quum se cogitat esse pium,” he is in earnest, exhibiting all the depths of a misguided but noble nature. Only intense emotion, only grand sincerity, could have made a prostitute immortal; for immortality must mean beauty. Thus, with Catullus, as with others, Nature herself delicately beautifies for the reader subjects which would otherwise offend ; and dignifies classical passion by the intensity of the emotion which she causes it to produce.
It is an easy step from Catullus to La Fontaine. Catullus was an immoral man, lived an immoral life :
Quisquis versibus exprimit Catullum
But what shall we say of the charming Frenchman, the child of nature, if ever child of nature existed ? If we want to understand him at all, we must set English notions and modern prejudice to some extent aside. Look at the man, a man, as M. Taine calls him, “peu moral, médiocrement digne, exempt de grands passions et enclin au plaisir ;”_"a trifler,” as he is contemptuously styled by Macaulay. He sought to amuse himself, and nothing more; loved good living, gambled, flirted, made verses, delighted in “ bons vins et gentilles Gauloises." He did not even hide his infidelities from his wife. If she was indignant, he treated her remarks jocosely. He wrote to Madame de la Fontaine that immediately on entering a place, when travelling, he inquired for the beautiful women; told of an amorous adventure in an alley; and said, speaking of the ladies of a certain town, “Si je trouve quelqu'un de ces chaperons qui couvre une jolie tête, je pourrai bien m'y assurer en passant et par curiosité seulement!” Like all gay men, he had his moments of despondency, but he was without depth. In spite of all this, he was capable of taking an independent attitude; and his devotion to his friends was as great as his infidelity to his wife. So he left behind him his “Fables” and “Tales”—pride and glory of the French nation. They are sincere, they are charming; they are full of flashes of true poetry; they are.
in fact, the agreeable written patter of La Fontaine hintself. Is their effect immoral ? I think not. We are so occupied with the manner of the teller, we are so amused with his piquancy and outspokenness, that we do not brood too long over the impure. The flashes of poetry and wit play around the “gaudriole,” and purify it unconsciously. La Fontaine sits before us in his easy chair.
chair. We see the twinkling of his merry eye, and we hear his wit tinkling against his subjectlike ice tapping on the side of a beaker of champagne. We are brought up with much purer notions, but we cannot help enjoying the poet's society—he is so straightforward, so genuine.
so genuine. We would not like to waste precious time in his company very often, but he is harmless. We must have a very poor opinion of ourselves if we think our moral tone can be hurt by such a shallow fellow.
It would prove no more to prolong examples of this sort. As for modern French writers of the “immoral” school, they are an imitative and inferior set-only competent to hurt school-boys. George Sand, because she is not always sincere, has written immorally-in such trash as “ Leone Levi,” for example; but where she has conferred literary splendour on illicit passion, where her words burn with the reality of a fiery nature, she has not shocked us we have been so absorbed with the intensity of the more splendid emotion growing out of and playing over a subject deeply felt. The pleasure we have derived from her finer efforts in that direction has not been immoral in any true sense of that word ; for the sincerity of the writer has caused the revelation of the agony, and made us feel glad that our own standards are happier. Inferior writers may grovel as much as they please, but we don't heed them. We know their books are immoral, but we know also that they are not literature.
A well-meaning and conscientious man will not unfrequently disseminate immoral ideas through deficiency of insight. The late Count . de Vigny did so. In his translations of Shakspeare he softened all the coarse passages, and in many cases only rendered the indelicacy more insidious. But he sinned most outrageously in his boldest original effort, the play of Chatterton—"an austere work,” he says, “ written in the silence of a labour of seventeen nights.” The hero, of course, is the young English poet. The play is a plea for genius against society. The plea sounds more effective in the high-flown preface than in the text which follows :-“When a man dies in this way,” says De Vigny, “is he then a suicide ? No; it is society that flings him into the fire! ... There are some things which kill the ideas first and the man afterwards : hunger, for example. . . . I ask society to do no more than she is capable of doing. I do not ask her to cure the pains of the heart, and drive away unhappy ideals—to prevent Werther and Saint Preux from loving Charlotte and Julie d'Etanges. There are, I know, a thousand miserable ideas over which
society has no control. The more reason, it seems to me, to think of those which she can cure. ... One should not suffer those whose infirmity is inspiration to perish. They are never numerous, and I cannot help thinking they possess some value, since humanity is unanimous on the subject of their grandeur, and declares their verse immortal—when they are dead. ... Let us cease to say to them, Despair and die. It is for legislation to answer this plea, one of the most vital and profound that can agitate society.” Unfortunately, poets starve still, and apologists like De Vigny have not made society one whit the kinder. As might have been expected, the play is full of puerilities. The Chatterton of De Vigny is a mere abstraction, cleverly conceived, no doubt, but no more like the real person than the real person was like a monk of the fifteenth century, or the French "Child of the Age.” He has been educated with the young nobility at Oxford, has taken to literature, and has fallen in love with “Kitty Bell”—who has several children by a brute of a husband. The only way he can devise to show his attachment is to give Kitty a Bible, and the first act ends with her soliloquy after receiving the same. "Why,” exclaims Mrs. Bell, "why, when I touched my husband's hand, did I reproach myself for keeping this book ? Conscience cannot be in the wrong. [She stands dreaming.] I will return it !” In the opinion of the French dramatist, it is exceedingly pathetic to find a married woman and London landlady falling in love with her lodger, and vastly probable to make certain lords go hunting, in Chatterton's time, on Primrose Hill. Aggravated to frenzy by mingled hunger and love, the poet determines to kill himself; but is interrupted by the entrance of “Le Quaker,” a highly moral and sagacious person, who makes a great figure in the play. The two discourse on suicide. “What !” cries the Quaker at last, “Kitty Bell loves you! Non, will you kill yourself ?” Whereas, in real life, any sensible fellow, even a Frenchman, would have said, “Far better kill yourself, my boy, than continue in this infatuation for a married woman.” Chatterton relents for the time being. He is afterwards rendered desperate, however, by Lord Mayor Bedford, a personage of whose authority De Vigny had the most exaggerated notions, and who offers the poor poet a situation as footman. “O my soul, I have sold thee!” cried Chatterton, when left to himself; “I purchase thee back with this.” And he thereupon drinks the opium. He then throws his manuscripts on the fire. “Go, noble thoughts, written for the ungrateful!” he exclaims ; " be purified in the flame, and mount to heaven with me!” At this point Kitty Bell enters the chamber, and much sweet sentiment is spoken. “ Listen to me, says the marvellous boy. “You have a charming family: do you love
your children ?” “Assuredly—more than life.” life, then, for the sake of those to whom you have given it.”
“ Love your
'tis not for their sakes that I love it." “ What is there more beautiful in the world, Kitty Bell ?” asks Chatterton ; “with those angels on your knees, you resemble Divine Charity.” He at last tells her that he is a doomed man; whereupon she falls upon her knees, exclaiming, “ Powers of Heaven, spare him!” He falls dead. Then again the Quaker makes his appearance, like the Moral incarnated ; and at his back is John Bell, the brute of a husband. Kitty dies by the side of Chatterton; and the curtain falls as the Quaker cries, “In thine own kingdom, in thine own, O Lord, receive these two MARTYRS!”
It would be tedious to point out the sickliness of the story, or to show further how utterly the simplicity of truth is destroyed by the false elements introduced to add to its pathos. So utterly unreal are the circumstances, that they impress Frenchmen as ludicrously as Englishmen; they are immoral, but harmless through very silliness. The play from beginning to end, in its feebleness and falsehood, is a fair specimen of what an incompetent man may do when dealing with a subject which he does not understand. He does not feel the truth, and therefore introduces elements to make it more attractive to his sympathies. He thinks he is saying a fine thing when he is uttering what merely awakens ridicule. He pronounces Pan superior to Apollo, and gets the asses' ears for his pains; and the crown is so palpable to the eyes of all men, that nobody listens to his solemn judgments afterwards.
Wherever great sin has found truly literary expression, that expression has contained the thrill of pain which touches and teaches. Wherever a gay sincere heart has chosen immoral subjects, and succeeded in making them not only tolerable but pleasant, Nature has stepped in with the magic of genius to spiritualise the impure. Where there is sin in literature and no suffering, the description is false, because in life the moral implication of sin is suffering; and whether a writer expresses the truth through actual experience, or mere insight, the effect is the same. Where immoral subjects have been treated gaily, in levity, without the purifying literary spirituality, the result has been worthless—it has ministered neither to knowledge nor to pleasure. And to what does all this, if admitted, lead ? To the further admission that immoral writing proceeds primarily from insincerity of vision, and that nothing is worthy the name of literature which is decided on fair grounds to be immoral.
It is easy to apply the broad test to some of our older authors, who have certainly used language pretty freely. We shall not go very far wrong if we pronounce many of the Elizabethan dramatists, and all the dramatists of the Restoration, to be immoral. Yet Shakspeare is occasionally as gross as any of his contemporaries; while Jonson, an inferior writer, though a straightforward and splendid nature, is singularly pure. I do not fancy, for my own part, that