Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


THE WORLD OF BOOKS: A Packet of Delightful Epistles*


Letters on Literature, by Andrew Lang. [1889] London and New Youk: Longmans, Green & Co.


After the peculiar success which Mr. Lang achieved in his Letters to Dead Authors, the captivated public became clamorous to know what he might have to say on living celebrities. The volume* before me is Mr. Lang’s discreet response. The task he here undertakes is one before which he wisely hesitated. Yet he has succeeded in it, by reason of his delicacy, his subtility of appreciation, his beguiling humor, and his Scottish caution. Only half a dozen of the letters, in truth, are concerned with the perilous subject of contemporary writers; but in these he is at his best. The others, on such themes as Fielding, Gerard de Norval, Lucretius, Virgil, Ancassin and Nicolette, Plotinus, Rochetoucauld, etc., etc., are written in a modern spirit to imaginary correspondents of this nineteenth century.

There are perhaps more accomplished critics now writing than Mr. Lang, but there are more, I feel sure, who so combine sound critical judgement with the finest graces of style. Whatever Mr. Lang writes is literature. The assured and inimitable touch is never lacking. There is a persistent flavor of Theocritus, of the Greek anthology, anthology, and of delighted wanderings in Proveneal song. All this is blended with modern sympathies, the spirit of alert inquiry, and a fondness for coquetries of phrase which sometimes come very near the verge of slang. Such is the apparent lightness of these pages that we often fail to realize just how sane and temperate are the doctrines which we are imbibing. Yet, with all his good sense, he reiterates the hackneyed lament that poetry has fallen into disfavor. "Poor poetry!" says he, with misplaced condolence. "Now we dwell in an age of democracy, and poetry wins but a feigned respect, more out of courtesy, and for old sake’s sake, than for liking." This is an age which gives Tennyson his $25 000 a year for his singing, and Browning his $10 000, and Swinburne, with his comparatively limited appeal, $5 000! The complaint is an idle and unfounded one. The rewards above named may not seem vary large in themselves, but they go with an influence and repute which are not to be measured in dollars.

To judge of Mr. Lang’s insight as a critic, one need only read his brief but adequate comparison of Tennyson and Browning. In order to delight in the one, he does not find it necessary to inveigh against the other. He admires both heartily, though, as might be expected from his own artistic and lovely verse, he sets the greater store by the Laureate. After a judicious searching out of the inevitable flaws which, like flies to amber, are to be found even in Tennyson, he thus sums up: "He is with Milton for learning, with Keats for magic and vision, with Virgil for graceful recasting of ancient golden lines." With regard to Browning, after admitting that "it is hardly to be hoped that ‘Sordillo,’ or ‘Red Cotton Night Cap Country,’ or ‘Fifine,’ will continue to be struggled with by posterity," he reaches the following wise conclusion: "No perversity of humor, no voluntary or involuntary harshness of style, can destroy the merit of these poems (Men and Women), which have nothing like them in the letters of the past, and must remain without successful imitators in the future. They will last all the better for a certain manliness of religious faith—something sturdy and assured—not moved by winds of doctrine, not pattering with doubts, which certainly is one of Mr. Browning’s attractions in this fickle and shifting generation. He cannot be forgotten while, as he says,

     A sunset touch,
A chorus ending of Euripides,

reminds men that they are creatures of immortality, and move a thousand hopes and fears.


"The World of Books: A Packet of Delightful Epistles," Progress 2:58 (Saint John, N.B.), 8 June 1889, 6 [back]