« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
HIS CHARACTER professed to have been the discoverer of Myrtle Street, the abode of peace and beauty, and virtue, ‘and serene old age.' Thus it looked to him as he explored its' western extremity of sunny courts ‘and passages.' Holmes's books contain many proofs of his cat-like attachment to city nooks and corners, his liking for odd streets, unexpected turns, and winding ways. “I have bored this an
cient city through and through, until I know it (as an old inhabitant of a Cheshire knows his cheese.'
Holmes enjoyed above all the sense of an undisturbed possession of things. He complained of the march of modern improvement only when he found himself improved out of one house and driven to take refuge in another. He thought that a wretched state of affairs whereby a man was compelled to move every twenty or thirty years.
With his sunny nature Holmes found it difficult to be a good hater. He had but two violent antipathies, Calvinism and homeopathy. On these he concentrated the little measure of asperity he possessed, together with a large measure of vigorous logic and frank contempt.
In his characteristic prose style Holmes is easy, familiar, off-hand, in short, conversational. He may have spent hours over his paragraphs, but with their air of unpremeditation they give no sign of it. The manner of his prose is well-bred but nonchalant. Yet there is always a note of reserve. The Autocrat is less familiar than he seems.
The conversational style permits abrupt turns, sudden transitions, a pleasant negligence. It also has narrow limits; it cannot rise to eloquence, and fine writing is apt to seem out of place. Holmes knew pretty accurately the limits of his instrument.
Like other practised writers, he varied his style to fit his subject. And while a certain winsomeness is never wanting, it is less apparent in the novels than in the 'Breakfast-Table’ books, and in the biographies than in the novels. Often he becomes business-like, extremely matter of fact, clearly determined to make his point or to solve his problem without waste of words or superfluous ornament.
With respect to his verse we have been told that Holmes was a' consummate master of all that ‘is harmonious, graceful, and pleasing in rhythm and in language. Had the eulogist been speak
THE WRITER ing of Tennyson, or Swinburne, or Shelley, he could have said little more. Holmes's verse is neat, precise, felicitous, often graceful, unmistakably clever, abounding in pointed phrase and happy rhyme, but taken as a whole it must be adjudged the poetry of a cultivated gentleman and a wit rather than the poetry of a poet.
Much of it has a distinctly old-fashioned air, contrasting oddly with the freshness and modernity' of the poet's prose. In his own phrase Holmes
was trained after the schools of classical Eng‘lish verse as represented by Pope, Goldsmith, and
Campbell.' The metrical essays (Poetry, Astræa, Urania) show how strong was the Eighteenthcentury influence. The choice of metre cannot be questioned. If audiences will have poetic dissertations, they probably suffer least under the heroic couplet. It is easy to comprehend, and not difficult to write ; and the form of the verse tempts to cleverness.
THE AUTOCRAT AND ITS COMPANIONS,
OVER THE TEACUPS, OUR HUNDRED DAYS IN EUROPE
The motto, ‘Every man his own Boswell,' on the title-page of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, is a key to the book. The conceit has merits be
sides that of novelty. There is a world of humorous suggestion in the idea of doubling' the parts of philosophic wit and worshipping reporter.
The scene is a Boston boarding-house with its more or less commonplace people, the landlady, her daughter, her son Benjamin Franklin, the young
fellow called John, the old gentleman who sits opposite, the poor relation, the divinity student, the schoolmistress, and the Autocrat himself. They talk, listen, jest, laugh. Little by little the commonplace characters grow attractive. Pleasant and lovable traits come to light. There is pathos, sentiment, a deal of mirth, but little action. The Autocrat marries the schoolmistress towards the close of the book. So much likeness is there to an old-fashioned love story, and no more.
In general the characters interest less for what they say than for what they prompt the Autocrat to say. He says many things, and all so wise, so entertaining, so clever. When Holmes threw off these sparkling paragraphs month by month, he could have had little idea what the index would reveal. He glances from subject to subject, touching lightly here and lightly there. Poetry, pugilism, horse-racing, theology, and tree-lore are all equally interesting to him and to us. The reader is not too long detained by any one thing. An infinite number of topics are handled with effervescent gayety in a manner sometimes called French.' Holmes accused Emerson of want of logical se
quence. That was a master stroke. Open a volume of the Breakfast-Table series at random and you
chance on the oddest combinations of subjects, as when a paragraph on insanity is followed by a paragraph on private theatricals — perhaps a less illogical juxtaposition than at first sight appears. Waywardness and inconsequence are among the principal charms of The Autocrat of the BreakfastTable.
That a book so distinctively local in atmosphere and allusion should have attained at once and kept to this day widespread popularity is a little surprising. For local it is — provincial, as New Yorkers would say. At all events, it is Bostonian to the last degree. The little city, compact and picturesque, was not merely the background, the scene of the breakfast-table episodes and conversations; the entire volume is saturated with the atmosphere of Boston. To Holmes it was the one city worth while, the city whose State House was Hub of the Solar System. By his testimony (and who should know better?) you could not pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.
The Autocrat was followed by the Professor and the Poet. The critical history of sequels is well known. Seldom a complete failure, they are rarely an unqualified success. Yet it is not easy wherein The Professor at the Breakfast-Table falls much below The Autocrat. The book would be