Page images

like opportunity. We visited Stratford-on-Avon, 6trolled about Charlecote Park and other places in the neighbourhood, and while I was sketching, Irving, mounted on a stile or seated on a stone, was busily engaged with "the Stout Gentleman." He wrote with the greatest rapidity, often laughing to himself, and from time to time reading the manuscript to me. We loitered some days in this classicneighbourhood, visiting Warwick and Kenilworth, and by the time we arrived at Birmingham the outline of the "Stout Gentleman" was completed. The amusing account of " The Modern Knights Errant" ho added at Birmingham, and the inimitable picture of the inn yard on a rainy day was taken from an inn where we were afterwards quartered at Derby.' *

'Nothing could be more agreeable,' pursues Leslio, 'than my daily intercourse at this period with Irving and Newton (1820). We visited in the same families, chiefly Americans resident in London, and generally dined together at the York Chop-House, in Wardonr Street. Irving's brother Peter, an amiable man, and not without a touch of Washington's humour, was always of our party. Delightful were our excursions to Bichmond or Greenwich, or to some suburban fair, on the top of a coach. The harmony that subsisted among us was uninterrupted; but Irving grew into fame as an author, and being, all at once, made a great lion of by fashionable people, he was much withdrawn from us.'

His new occupation, however, as a professional author rendered it necessary that he should seek for advice and encouragement among more influential allies, already known to the literary public; and the first of these who befriended the young foreigner was Campbell. Peter Irving had done the poet some service in the way of obtaining for him an American copyright. Campbell, in return, introduced Washington both to the authors whom he loved, and the booksellers, whom he hated but dreaded. Campbell, it is said, once, at a dinner in the height of the war, gave ' Napoleon ' as a toast. Being asked the reason of so disloyal a proceeding, he replied, 'because he once shot a bookseller.' It was through Campbell, and as early as 1817, that Irving obtained his first introduction to Walter Scott, the origin of an acquaintance which proved to the American a source not only of pleasure, but of considerable advantage. Scott took to him at once. He not only felt for the Transatlantic stranger that kindly sympathy which he was always wont to extend to literary adventurers of merit, but he esteemed his character, enjoyed his easy flow of conversation, and his unobtrusive company. He calls him (in a letter published in Lockhart's Life) 'one of the best and pleasantest acquaintances I have made this many a

* * Autobiographical Sketches,' vol. ii., p. 65.



day.' Irving, for his part, repaid Scott's kindness by the most enthusiastic admiration:—

'I cannot express my delight at Scott's character and manners,' ho says in his first letter to his brother Peter Irving from Abbotsford; ■ he is a sterling, golden-hearted old worthy, full of the joyousness of youth, with an imagination continually furnishing forth pictures, and a charming simplicity of manners that puts you at case with him in a moment. It has been a constant source of pleasuro to me to remark his deportment towards his family, his neighbours, his domestics, his very dogs and cats; everything that comes within his influence seems to catch a' beam of that sunshine that plays round his heart; but I shall say more of him hereafter, for he is a theme on which I shall love to dwell.'

'I am now pretty well acquainted with the luminaries of Edinburgh,' he says elsewhere, ' and confess that, among them all, Scott is the man of my choice. Neither the voice of fame nor the homage of the great has altered in the least the native simplicity of his heart. . . Jeffrey excels him in brilliancy of conversation, but Jeffrey seems to be always acting a studied part; and although his social feelings may bo no less warm than Scott's, yet they are more or less disguised under a species of affectation. His friends esteem him a miracle of perfection; and, in point of talent, none will be found to contradict them; but as for the el celeras, I would not give the Minstrel for a wilderness of Jeffreys.'—p. 221.

Perhaps, however, gratitude may have had some share in producing these enthusiastic feelings. The ' Sketch Book ' appeared first in America, in numbers, in 1819, under the superintendence of his brother Ebenezer, and his friend Brevoort. It seized at once on the American mind—a rare event for a work of imagination, and what may be termed peculiarly English humour, in that uncongenial atmosphere; but 'Rip van Winkle ' and 'Sleepy Hollow' seem to have carried everything before them. In the course of the year the London Literary Gazette commenced a reprint of the series. Irving appears really not to have contemplated publication in England, 'conscious that much of the contents could be interesting only to American readers, and having a distrust of their being able to stand the severity of British criticism;' but this proceeding of the Gazette drove him into the field. He first applied to Murray, who declined the undertaking without having read the book. It then occurred to him to send the numbers to Walter Scott, on the strength of their as yet slight acquaintance, ■and ask him to negotiate with Constable, at Edinburgh. Scott entered at once on the business with all the heartiness inspired by good-will to the author and a real sense of the value of the book. 'It is positively beautiful,' he said; and evinced his appreciation of it in his own characteristic way, by offering Irving


4 the superintendence of an anti-Jacobin periodical publication which will appear weekly in Edinburgh, with 500/. a year certain, and the reasonable prospect of future advantages.' Irving declined the offer, not only on account of his general dislike to politics, but his special dislike of ' any recurring task, any stipulated labour of body or mind,' anything, in short, which would interfere with the unattached and discursive character of his existence. Irving then determined to publish on his own account, through Miller. 'It is certainly not the very best way,' observes Scott thereupon (March 1, 1820), ' to publish on one's own account; for the booksellers set their faces against the circulation of such works as do not pay an amazing toll to themselves. But they have lost the art of altogether damming up the road in such cases between the author and the public, which they were once able to do as effectually as Diabolus, in John Bunyan's Holy War, closed up the windows of my Lord Understanding's mansion.' Proceedings were interrupted by the failure of Miller. Ultimately, Scott induced Murray to complete them; and the great publisher bought the copyright of a second edition for 200/. The success of the book was complete; and from that time Irving's modest literary fortune may be said to have been made.

The Sketch-Book remains the standard work by which Irving's title to a position among English writers was fixed. Nor did he ever rise above the height which he then attained. For our own parts we are inclined to think that 'Bracebridge Hall' and the 'Tales of a Traveller' contain some passages which excel in merit anything achieved in his earlier publication. But whether this be so or not, the 'Sketch-Book' gave vent to the 'first sprightly runnings' of his genius. Writings of this class must be of great excellence to retain their hold on the public for more than a few years. Newer and more fashionable candidates for popularity of the same order are daily arising to supplant them. Dickens and Thackeray, not to mention others of less name, have no doubt left but scanty room on our library shelves for Irving. His real defect is want of originality; or, to speak perhaps with more accuracy, such originality as he possesses is of manner, not of matter. He was not much of an observer at first hand either of nature or mankind. His talent lay rather in reproducing the impressions which he had derived from books, than in creating from his own stores of perception or imagination. His England, with its pastoral, old-fashioned inhabitants, is the England of which an American reads or dreams, not our country of the nineteenth century. It has been not ill said of him, that he1 brought us rifacimentos of our own thoughts, and copies of our favourite authors. We saw our self-admiration reflected in an.

accomplished accomplished stranger's eye.' There is a sameness, too, in the general run of his graceful little creations, which is not illcharacterised by the epithet which was applied to him of the 'Wouvermans of Anglo-American literature.' Still, his touch is often vigorous, sometimes picturesque, always pleasing; he possesses in great perfection that art of mingling pathos with humour, carrying neither beyond the point at which it will harmonise with the other, which is among the rarer gifts of authorship. In fact, we hardly know of any one since Addison, his model, who exhibits it in an equal degree. And these qualities have secured him a permanent place, if not one of the highest order, in the ranks of modern humorists. Notwithstanding all the vogue of later writers, Irving remains one of the most popular of our deceased authors, judging by the common-place but fair test of library circulation. And it is worthy of remark, that he occupies, and perhaps alone, a middle place between the literature of distinct generations or centuries. He is connected on the one hand with a series of bygone celebrities whose fashion is out of date: on the other, with some of those whose fashion is of the newest. As to a great portion of his writings, he is the successor of the early 'British Essayists,' particularly of Steele and Goldsmith, whose style and peculiarities he endeavoured to adapt to his own generation. As to another portion, and perhaps that most peculiar to himself—the grotesque, or Hoffmanesque, or comic legendary style, exemplified in 'Rip Van Winkle,' the 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' and several more of his best-known productions—he is rather the predecessor of a newer school. He, De Quincey, and one or two more, maj be said to be the original explorers, in English at least, of this particular vein, which has been subsequently followed up, even to our weariness, by so many more; which was peculiarly seductive to Dickens in his earlier days, until his fame became established on a firmer basis; and which seems still to furnish a large share of the material of some of our most popular periodicals. And we cannot close this short critical essay without adverting to one peculiarity in Irving's writings to which justice has scarcely been done—the exceedingly musical cadence of his prose. This is scarcely owing to labour; for he was a rapid and rather careless writer. It was, we imagine, the result of a natural gift. Its existence can easily be tested by reading aloud.

Having got the 'Sketch-Book' and the fraternal bankruptcy fairly off his mind for the time, Irving proceeded to gratify his restless disposition by leaving England and setting up his bachelor tent in Paris, in company with faithful brother Peter. They started, after the fashion of their country, with a specula

tion for running- steamers on the Seine, between Havre and Rouen, which scheme was before its age, and had little result beyond absorbing the profits of the 'Sketch-Book.' It would have been well if the national itch for 'investments' had been cured in him by this uncomfortable experience: but within a few years we find the two brothers again engaged in the 'Bolivar Copper Mine,' and again running up a sad per contra in Washington's little account-book. He made the gay city his abode on thij occasion for nearly a year and a half; from August, 1820, to the end of 1821.

The most noteworthy circumstance connected with his stay there was the intimacy which he formed with Moore the poet, whose residence in Paris was just then compulsory, owing to his Bermudian entanglements. Their slight acquaintance with each other soon ripened into familiar friendship. It is evident that Irving in reality liked Moore by far the best of the English literary men with whom he made friends, and Moore, on his part, cordially returned the compliment. There was something congenial in the social, impecunious, Bohemian habits of both, while, in conversation, Moore's brilliancy fitted in admirably well with Irving's more natural and simple style, which served the poet as a foil. Moore was seldom happier than in the intervals of his gay invitations (which were, nevertheless, so much to his taste), when he could get Irving alone, or with one or two more, to drop in for a 'roast chicken with Bessy,' probably finishing the evening at some Parisian theatre. Irving had what was to Moore the merit of contrast. He was at bottom a man of melancholy temperament, rather dependent on others for excitement, and somewhat slow to draw out The poet in his Journals describes a scene at his own lodgings, when the floor gave way through some accident. 'Irving's humour,' he adds, 'broke out as the floor broke in, and he was much more himself than ever I have seen him.' More generally, Moore esteemed him 'not strong as a lion, but delightful as a domestic animal.' They were also of considerable service to each other as literary brothers. Irving doubtless supplied Moore with many a hint which expanded into verse: Moore, according to his own account, made a present to Irving of some of the best stories recounted in his work.* Irving

* The genealogy of good stories leads us back to periods of antiquity almost as bewildering as that of Man in the hauds of modern philosophers. Every one knows the tale of the student iu Paris and the ghostly lady, whose bead fell off as soon as her collar was untied. Alexander Dumas has only recently reproduced it as 'La Femrae au Collier de Velours,' without the slightest hint of appropriation from Irving's Lady with the Black Collar ('Tales of a Traveller'). Moore says that he told the story to Irving, • having had it from Horace Smith'


« PreviousContinue »