Our esteemed correspondent—The great imprinted—Lord Tennyson’s death—“Crossing the Bar”—Why was it never printed in its entirety?—The comments on the poem—Who could the Pilot have been?—Pilot or pilot engine?—A vexed and vexing question—Erroneous navigation—Tennyson’s voyage with Mr. Gladstone—Its far-reaching results—Tennyson’s interest in every form of literary work—“My Official Wife”—Amateur critics—The Royal Dane—Edwin Booth and his critic—A really comic play—An Irving enthusiast—“Gemini and Virgo”—“Our sincerest laughter”—The drollest of soliloquies—“Eugene Aram” for the hilarious—The proof of a sincere devotion.

THE people who spend their time writing letters to newspapers pointing out mistakes, or what they imagine to be mistakes, and making many suggestions as to how the newspaper should be conducted in all its departments, constitute a branch of the profession of philanthropy, to which sufficient attention has never been given.

I do not, of course, allude to the type whom Mr. George Du Maurier derided when he put the phrase J’écrirai à le Times into his mouth on being compelled to pay an extravagant bill at a French hotel; there are people who have just grievances to expose, and there are newspapers that exist for the dissemination of those grievances; but it is an awful thought that at this very moment there are some hundreds—perhaps thousands—of presumably sane men and women sitting down and writing letters to their local newspapers to point out to the management that the jeu d’esprit attributed in yesterday’s issue to Sydney Smith, was one of which Douglas Jerrold was really the author; or that the quotation about the wind being tempered to the shorn lamb is not to be found in the Bible, but in “the works of the late Mr. Sterne”; or perhaps suggesting that no country could rightly be regarded as exempted from the list of lands forming a legitimate sphere for missionary labour, whose newspapers give up four columns daily to an account of the horse-racing of the day before. A book might easily be written by any one who had some experience, not of the letters that appear in a newspaper, but of those that are sent to the editor by enthusiasts on the subject of finance, morality, religion, and the correct text of some of Burns dialect poems.

When Lord Tennyson died, I printed five columns of a biographical and critical sketch of the great poet. I thought it necessary to quote only a single stanza of “Crossing the Bar.” During the next clay I received quite a number of letters asking in what volume of Tennyson’s works the poem was to be found. In the succeeding issue of the paper I gave the poem in full. From that day on during the next fortnight, no post arrived without bringing me a letter containing the same poem, with a request to have it published in the following issue; and every writer seemed to be under the impression that he (or she) had just discovered “Crossing the Bar.” Then the clergymen who forwarded in manuscript the sermons which they had preached on Tennyson, pointing out the “lessons” of his poems, presented their compliments and requested the insertion of “Crossing the Bar,” in its entirety, in the place in the sermons where they had quoted it. All this time “poems” on the death of Tennyson kept pouring in by the hundred, and I can safely say that not one came under my notice that did not begin,

“Yes, thou hast cross’d the Bar, and face to face

Thy Pilot seen,”

or with words to that effect.

After this had been going on for some weeks a member of the proprietorial household came to me with a letter open in his hand.

“I wonder how it was that we missed that poem of Tennyson’s.” said he. “It would have done well, I think, if it had been published in our columns at his death.”

“What poem is that?” I inquired.

“This is it,” he replied, offering me the letter which he held. “A personal friend of my own sends it to me for insertion. It is called ‘Crossing the Bar.’ Have you ever seen it before?”

The aggregate thickness of skull of the proprietorial household was phenomenal.

When writing on the subject of this poem I may perhaps be permitted to express the opinion, that the remarks made about it in some directions were the most astounding that ever appeared in print respecting a composition of the character of “Crossing the Bar.”

One writer, it may be remembered, took occasion to point out that the “Pilot” was, of course, the poet’s son, by whom he had been predeceased. The “thought” was, we were assured, that his son had gone before him to show him the direction to take, so to speak. Now whatever the “thought” of the poet was, the thought of this commentator converged not upon a pilot but a pilot-engine.

Then another writer was found anxious to point out that Tennyson’s navigation was defective. “What would be the use of a pilot when the bar was already crossed?” was the question asked by this earnest inquirer. This gentleman’s idea clearly was that Tennyson should have subjected himself to a course of Mr. Clark Russell before attempting to write such a poem as “Crossing the Bar.”

The fact was that Tennyson knew enough navigation for a poet, just as Mr. Gladstone knows enough for a premier. When the two most picturesque of Englishmen (assuming that Mr. Gladstone is an Englishman) took their cruise together in a steam yacht they kept their eyes open, I have good reason to know. I question very much if the most ideal salt in the mercantile marine could make a better attempt to describe some incidents of the sea than Tennyson did in “Enoch Arden”; and as the Boston gentleman was doubtful if more than six men in his city could write “Hamlet,” so I doubt if the same number of able-bodied seamen, whose command of emphatic language is noted, could bring before our eyes the sight, and send rushing through our ears the sound, of a breaking wave, with greater emphasis than Tennyson did when he wrote,—

“As the crest of some slow-arching wave

Heard in dead night along that table-shore

Drops flat; and after the great waters break,

Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves

Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud

From less and less to nothing.‘’

It was after he had returned from his last voyage with Mr. Gladstone that Tennyson wrote “Crossing the Bar.”

It was after Mr. Gladstone had returned from the same voyage that he consolidated his reputation as a statesman by a translation of “Rock of Ages” into Italian. He then made Tennyson a peer.

Perhaps it may not be considered an impertinence on my part if I give, in this place, an instance, which came under my notice, of the eclectic nature of Lord Tennyson’s interest in even the least artistic branches of literary work. A relative of mine went to Aldworth to lunch with the family of the poet only a few weeks before his death saddened every home in England. Lord Tennyson received his guest in his favourite room; he was seated on a sofa at a window overlooking the autumn russet landscape, and he wore a black velvet coat, which made his long delicate fingers seem doubly pathetic in their worn whiteness. He had been reading, and laid down the book to greet his visitor. This book was “My Official Wife.”

Now the author of the story so entitled is not the man to talk of his “Art,” as so many inferior writers do, in season and out of season. He knows that his stories are no more deserving of being regarded as high-class literature than is the scrappy volume at which I am now engaged. He knows, however, that he is an excellent exponent of a form of art that interests thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic; and the fact that Tennyson was able to read such a story as “My Official Wife” seems to me to show how much the poet was interested in a very significant phase of the constantly varying taste of the great mass of English readers.

It is the possession of such a sympathetic nature as this that prevents a man from ever growing old. Mr. Gladstone also seems to read everything that comes in his way, and he is never so busy as to be unable to snatch a moment to write a word of kindly commendation upon an excessively dull book.

It is not only upon the occasion of the death of a great man or a prince that some people are obliging enough to give an editor a valuable hint or two as to the standpoint from which the character of the deceased should be judged. They now and again express themselves with great freedom on the subject of living men, and are especially frank in their references to the private lives of the best-known and most highly respected gentlemen. It is, however, the performances of actors that form the most fruitful subject of irresponsible comment for “outsiders.” It has often seemed to me that every man has his own idea of the way “Hamlet” should be represented. When I was engaged in newspaper work I found that every new representation of the play was received by some people as the noblest effort to realise the character, while others were of the opinion that the actor might have found a more legitimate subject than this particular play for burlesque treatment. Mr. Edwin Booth once told me a story—I dare say it may be known in the United States—that would tend to convey the impression that the study of Hamlet has made its way among the coloured population as well as the colourless—if there are any—of America.

Mr. Booth said that he was acting in New Orleans, and when at the hotel, his wants were enthusiastically attended to by a negro waiter. At every meal the man showed his zeal in a very marked way, particularly by never allowing another waiter to come within hailing distance of his chair. Such attention, the actor thought, should be rewarded, so he asked Caractacus if he would care to have an order for the theatre. The waiter declared that if he only had the chance of seeing Mr. Booth on the stage, he (the waiter) would die happy when his time came. The actor at once gave him an order for the same night, and the next morning he found the man all teeth and eyes behind his chair.

“Well, Caractacus, did you manage to go to the theatre last night?” asked Booth.

“Didn’t I jus’, Massa Boove,” cried the waiter beaming.

“And how did you enjoy the piece?”

“Jus’ lubly, sah; nebber onjoyed moself so well—it kep’ me in a roar o’ larfta de whole ebening, sah. Oh, Massa Boove, you was too funny.”

The play that had been performed was Hamlet.

I chanced to be residing for a time in a large manufacturing town which Mr. Irving visited when “touring” some twelve years ago. In that town an enthusiastic admirer of Mr. Irving’s lived, and he was, with Mr. Irving and myself, a guest of the mayor’s at a dinner party on one Sunday night. In the drawing-room of the mayoress the great actor repeated his favourite poem—“Gemini and Virgo,” from Calverley’s “Verses and Translations,” dealing with inimitable grace with the dainty humour of this exquisite trifle; and naturally, every one present was delighted. For myself I may say that, frequently though I had heard Mr. Irving repeat the verses.

I felt that he had never before brought to bear upon them the consummate art of that high comedy of which he is the greatest living exponent. But I could not help noticing that the gentleman who had protested so enthusiastic an admiration for the actor, was greatly puzzled as the recitation went on, and I came to the conclusion that he had not the remotest idea what it was all about. When some ladies laughed outright at the delivery of the lines, with matchless adroitness,

“I did not love as others do—

None ever did that I’ve heard tell of,”

the man looked angrily round and cried “Hsh!” but even this did not overawe the young women, and they all laughed again at,

“One night I saw him squeeze her hand—

There was no doubt about the matter.

I said he must resign, or stand

My vengeance—and he chose the latter.”

But by this time it had dawned upon the jealous guardian of Mr. Irving’s professional reputation that the poem was meant to be a trifle humorous, and so soon as he became convinced of this, he almost interrupted the reciter with his uproarious hilarity, especially at places where the humour was far too subtle for laughter; and at the close he wiped his eyes and declared that the fun was too much for him.

I asked a relative of his if he thought that the man had the slightest notion of what the poem was about, and his relative said,—

“It might be in Sanskrit for all he understands of it. He loves Mr. Irving for himself alone. He has got no idea of art.”

Later in the night the conversation turned upon the difference between the elocutionary modes of expression of the past and the present day. In illustration of a point associated with the question of effect, Mr. Irving gave me at least a thrill such as I had never before experienced through the medium of his art, by repeating,—

“To be or not to be: that is the question.”

Before he had reached the words,—

“To die: to sleep:

No more,”

I felt that I had suddenly had a revelation made to me of the utmost limits of art; that I had been permitted a glimpse behind the veil, if I may be allowed the expression; that I had been permitted to take a single glance into a world whose very name is a mystery to the sons of men.

Every one present seemed spellbound. A commonplace man who sat next to me, drew a long breath—it was almost a gasp—and said,—

“That is too much altogether for such people us we are. My God! I don’t know what I saw—I don’t know how I come to be here.”

He could not have expressed better what my feeling was; and yet I had seen Mr. Irving’s Hamlet seventeen times, so that I might have been looked upon as unsusceptible to any further revelation on a point in connection with the soliloquy.

When I glanced round I saw Mr. Irving’s enthusiastic admirer once more wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. It was not, however, until Mr. Irving was in the act of reciting “The Dream of Eugene Aram,” that the same gentleman yielded to what he conceived to be the greatest comic treat of the evening.

Happily he occupied a back seat, and smothered his laughter behind a huge red handkerchief, which was guffaw-proof.

He was a little lower than the negro waiter in his appreciation of the actor’s art.

A year afterwards I met the same gentleman at an hotel in Scotland, and he reminded me of the dinner-party at the mayor’s. His admiration for Mr. Irving had in no degree diminished. He was partaking of a simple lunch of cold beef and pickled onions; and when he began to speak of the talents of the actor, he was helping himself to an onion, but so excited did he become that instead of dropping the dainty on his plate, he put it into his mouth, and after a crunch or two, swallowed it. Then he helped himself to a second, and crunched and talked away, while my cheeks became wrinkled merely through watching him. He continued automatically ladling the onions into his mouth until the jar was nearly empty, and the roof of my mouth felt crinkly. Fortunately a waiter came up—he had clearly been watching the man, and perceived that the hotel halfcrown lunch in this particular case would result in a loss to the establishment—and politely inquired if he had quite done with the pickle bottle, as another gentleman was asking for it.

I wondered how the man felt after the lapse of an hour or so. I could not but believe in the sincerity of a devotion that manifested itself in so striking a manner.

I have mentioned “The Dream of Eugene Aram.” Has any one ever attempted to identify the “little boy” who was the recipient of the harrowing tale of the usher? In my mind there is no doubt that the “gentle lad” whom Hood had in his eye was none other than James Burney, son of Dr. Burney, and brother of the writer of “Evelina.” He was a pupil at the school near Lynn which was fortunate enough to obtain the services of Eugene Aram as usher; and I have no doubt that, when he settled down in London, after joining in the explorations of Captain Cook, he excited the imagination of his friend Hood by his reminiscences of his immortal usher.

Gessner’s “Death of Abel” was published in England before the edition, illustrated by Stothard, appeared in 1797. Perhaps, however, young Master Burney carried his Bible about with him.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook