By Max Beerbohm
Max Beerbohm, I dare say (and I believe it has been said before), is the most subtly gifted English essayist since Charles Lamb. It is not surprising that he has (now for many years) been referred to as “the incomparable Max,” for what other contemporary has never once missed fire, never failed to achieve perfection in the field of his choice? Whether in caricature, short story, fable, parody, or essay, he has always been consummate in grace, tact, insouciant airy precision. I hope you will not miss “No. 2 The Pines” (in And Even Now, from which this selection also comes), a reminiscence of his first visit to Swinburne in 1899. That beautiful (there is no other word) essay shows an even ampler range of Mr. Beerbohm’s powers: a tenderness and lovely grace that remind one, almost against belief, that the gay youth of the ’90’s now mellows deliciously with the end of the fifth decade. He was so enormously old in 1896, when he published his first book and called it his Works; he seems much younger now: he is having his first childhood.
This portrait of the unfortunate cleric annihilated by Dr. Johnson is a triumphant example of the skill with which a perfect artist can manœuver a trifle, carved like an ivory trinket; in such hands, subtlety never becomes mere tenuity.
Max Beerbohm was born in London in 1872; studied at Charterhouse School and Merton College, Oxford; and was a brilliant figure in the Savoy and Yellow Book circles by the time he was twenty-four. His genius is that of the essay in its purest distillation: a clear cross-section of life as seen through the lens of self; the pure culture (in the biological sense) of observing personality.
I have often wondered how it came about (though the matter is wholly nonpertinent) that Mr. Beerbohm married an American lady—quite a habit with English essayists, by the way: Hilaire Belloc and Bertrand Russell did likewise. Who’s Who says she was from Memphis, which adds lustre to that admirable city.
He now lives in Italy.
FRAGMENTARY, pale, momentary; almost nothing; glimpsed and gone; as it were, a faint human hand thrust up, never to reappear, from beneath the rolling waters of Time, he forever haunts my memory and solicits my weak imagination. Nothing is told of him but that once, abruptly, he asked a question, and received an answer.
This was on the afternoon of April 7th, 1778, at Streatham, in the well-appointed house of Mr. Thrale. Johnson, on the morning of that day, had entertained Boswell at breakfast in Bolt Court, and invited him to dine at Thrale Hall. The two took coach and arrived early. It seems that Sir John Pringle had asked Boswell to ask Johnson “what were the best English sermons for style.” In the interval before dinner, accordingly, Boswell reeled off the names of several divines whose prose might or might not win commendation. “Atterbury?” he suggested. “Johnson: Yes, Sir, one of the best. Boswell: Tillotson? Johnson: Why, not now. I should not advise any one to imitate Tillotson’s style; though I don’t know; I should be cautious of censuring anything that has been applauded by so many suffrages.—South is one of the best, if you except his peculiarities, and his violence, and sometimes coarseness of language.—Seed has a very fine style; but he is not very theological. Jortin’s sermons are very elegant. Sherlock’s style, too, is very elegant, though he has not made it his principal study.—And you may add Smalridge. Boswell: I like Ogden’s Sermons on Prayer very much, both for neatness of style and subtility of reasoning. Johnson: I should like to read all that Ogden has written. Boswell: What I want to know is, what sermons afford the best specimen of English pulpit eloquence. Johnson: We have no sermons addressed to the passions, that are good for anything; if you mean that kind of eloquence. A Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect: Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions? Johnson: They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.”
The suddenness of it! Bang!—and the rabbit that had popped from its burrow was no more.
I know not which is the more startling—the début of the unfortunate clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? Well, we may be sure that so careful and acute an artist had some good reason. And I suppose the clergyman was left to take us unawares because just so did he take the company. Had we been told he was there, we might have expected that sooner or later he would join in the conversation. He would have had a place in our minds. We may assume that in the minds of the company around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell’s page it startles us. In Johnson’s massive and magnetic presence only some very remarkable man, such as Mr. Burke, was sharply distinguishable from the rest. Others might, if they had something in them, stand out slightly. This unfortunate clergyman may have had something in him, but I judge that he lacked the gift of seeming as if he had. That deficiency, however, does not account for the horrid fate that befell him. One of Johnson’s strongest and most inveterate feelings was his veneration for the Cloth. To any one in Holy Orders he habitually listened with a grace and charming deference. To-day, moreover, he was in excellent good humor. He was at the Thrales’, where he so loved to be; the day was fine; a fine dinner was in close prospect; and he had had what he always declared to be the sum of human felicity—a ride in a coach. Nor was there in the question put by the clergyman anything likely to enrage him. Dodd was one whom Johnson had befriended in adversity; and it had always been agreed that Dodd in his pulpit was very emotional. What drew the blasting flash must have been not the question itself, but the manner in which it was asked. And I think we can guess what that manner was.
Say the words aloud: “Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?” They are words which, if you have any dramatic and histrionic sense, cannot be said except in a high, thin voice.
You may, from sheer perversity, utter them in a rich and sonorous baritone or bass. But if you do so, they sound utterly unnatural. To make them carry the conviction of human utterance, you have no choice: you must pipe them.
Remember, now, Johnson was very deaf. Even the people whom he knew well, the people to whose voices he was accustomed, had to address him very loudly. It is probable that this unregarded, young, shy clergyman, when at length he suddenly mustered courage to ‘cut in,’ let his high, thin voice soar too high, insomuch that it was a kind of scream. On no other hypothesis can we account for the ferocity with which Johnson turned and rended him. Johnson didn’t, we may be sure, mean to be cruel. The old lion, startled, just struck out blindly. But the force of paw and claws was not the less lethal. We have endless testimony to the strength of Johnson’s voice; and the very cadence of those words, “They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may,” convinces me that the old lion’s jaws never gave forth a louder roar. Boswell does not record that there was any further conversation before the announcement of dinner. Perhaps the whole company had been temporarily deafened. But I am not bothering about them. My heart goes out to the poor dear clergyman exclusively.
I said a moment ago that he was young and shy; and I admit that I slipped those epithets in without having justified them to you by due process of induction. Your quick mind will have already supplied what I omitted. A man with a high, thin voice, and without power to impress any one with a sense of his importance, a man so null in effect that even the retentive mind of Boswell did not retain his very name, would assuredly not be a self-confident man. Even if he were not naturally shy, social courage would soon have been sapped in him, and would in time have been destroyed, by experience. That he had not yet given himself up as a bad job, that he still had faint wild hopes, is proved by the fact that he did snatch the opportunity for asking that question. He must, accordingly, have been young. Was he the curate of the neighboring church? I think so. It would account for his having been invited. I see him as he sits there listening to the great Doctor’s pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. He has colorless eyes, fixed earnestly, and a face almost as pale as the clerical bands beneath his somewhat receding chin. His forehead is high and narrow, his hair mouse-colored. His hands are clasped tight before him, the knuckles standing out sharply. This constriction does not mean that he is steeling himself to speak. He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something—something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, “Why, yes, Sir. That is most justly observed” or “Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you”—thereby fixing the observer forever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. “We have,” shouts Johnson, “no sermons addressed to the passions, that are good for anything.” I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and—no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears. But audible, even so, is something shrill, followed by something thunderous.
Presently I reopen my eyes. The crimson has not yet faded from that young face yonder, and slowly down either cheek falls a glistening tear. Shades of Atterbury and Tillotson! Such weakness shames the Established Church. What would Jortin and Smalridge have said?—what Seed and South? And, by the way, who were they, these worthies? It is a solemn thought that so little is conveyed to us by names which to the palæo-Georgians conveyed so much. We discern a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown, with a big congregation beneath him. But we are not anxious to hear what he is saying. We know it is all very elegant. We know it will be printed and be bound in finely-tooled full calf, and no palæo-Georgian gentleman’s library will be complete without it. Literate people in those days were comparatively few; but, bating that, one may say that sermons were as much in request as novels are to-day. I wonder, will mankind continue to be capricious? It is a very solemn thought indeed that no more than a hundred-and-fifty years hence the novelists of our time, with all their moral and political and sociological outlook and influence, will perhaps shine as indistinctly as do those old preachers, with all their elegance, now. “Yes, Sir,” some great pundit may be telling a disciple at this moment, “Wells is one of the best. Galsworthy is one of the best, if you except his concern for delicacy of style. Mrs. Ward has a very firm grasp of problems, but is not very creational.—Caine’s books are very edifying. I should like to read all that Caine has written. Miss Corelli, too, is very edifying.—And you may add Upton Sinclair.” “What I want to know,” says the disciple, “is, what English novels may be selected as specially enthralling.” The pundit answers: “We have no novels addressed to the passions that are good for anything, if you mean that kind of enthralment.” And here some poor wretch (whose name the disciple will not remember) inquires: “Are not Mrs. Glyn’s novels addressed to the passions?” and is in due form annihilated. Can it be that a time will come when readers of this passage in our pundit’s Life will take more interest in the poor nameless wretch than in all the bearers of those great names put together, being no more able or anxious to discriminate between (say) Mrs. Ward and Mr. Sinclair than we are to set Ogden above Sherlock, or Sherlock above Ogden? It seems impossible. But we must remember that things are not always what they seem.
Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favors, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by so doing he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly. Tillotson and the rest need not, after all, be pitied for our neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such terrene trifles. Let us keep our pity for the seething mass of divines who were not elegantly verbose, and had no fun or glory while they lasted. And let us keep a specially large portion for one whose lot was so much worse than merely undistinguished. If that nameless curate had not been at the Thrales’ that day, or, being there, had kept the silence that so well became him, his life would have been drab enough, in all conscience. But at any rate an unpromising career would not have been nipped in the bud. And that is what in fact happened, I’m sure of it. A robust man might have rallied under the blow. Not so our friend. Those who knew him in infancy had not expected that he would be reared. Better for him had they been right. It is well to grow up and be ordained, but not if you are delicate and very sensitive, and shall happen to annoy the greatest, the most stentorian and roughest of contemporary personages. “A Clergyman” never held up his head or smiled again after the brief encounter recorded for us by Boswell. He sank into a rapid decline. Before the next blossoming of Thrale Hall’s almond trees he was no more. I like to think that he died forgiving Dr. Johnson.